So, you’ve been asked to moderate a panel discussion at an event. Great…you’ve snagged the runner-up position instead of being selected a full-on speaker. Time to just make a list of questions and stick to the script, right?
In fact, doubly wrong. First things first: The moderator is not the runner-up role on a panel discussion. In fact, they are the single-most important key to unlocking value for the audience. Second — Do not stick to a script. This will only cripple you and bore everyone.
If attendees don’t walk out of that room having learned something, it’s not the fault of the speaker selection committee: It’s the fault of ineffective moderation. A good moderator asks questions that cater to the strengths of each panelist; a great moderator makes every panelist seem like a genius.
For me, moderating a panel isn’t a boring thing for a stodgy industry-specific conference at a niche event. Moderating a panel is an IRL version of the hot seat: You get to drill people publicly about a thing they all care about while sharing very little about yourself in return.
So I thought I’d take the time to share a bit more about why moderating panels is important and my five cardinal rules for doing it well.
For many years of my life, I thought panel discussions were just about the worst way to consume information. Here you have a group of insanely high-power people up on a stage together — and yet, time and time again, I would walk out of these events and conversations having learned…absolutely nothing.
But…I firmly believe that every person in the world has a story to tell that you can learn from. One of my favorite party tricks is figuring out what that “passion point” is with someone and diving deep into it. (I’ve been doing this for years and even did an IGNITE talk about this several years ago.)
Once you get down to that part — the crunchy juicy bits of somebody’s passion point — things start to get a little more interesting. It’s sort of interesting to learn that somebody like to play foosball for fun. But it’s really interesting to learn the intricacies of the foosball championship circuit around the world: how people train, where they play, and why they do it.
How does this relate to moderation?
Let’s address this common misconception right off the bat. As a moderator, it’s not your job to surface a bunch of disparate ideas and leave them hanging. (By the way, it’s also not your job to secretly promote yourself as a subject matter expert in whatever thing you’re talking about.)
Instead, try thinking about your role in moderating like tossing the first serve in a volleyball match: You want to get things moving, then keep the ball up in the air for as long as possible. Once it drops, you serve it to somebody else and start a new round. This is dynamic and unpredictable. It keeps people engaged.
Granted, this is easier said than done. If you think content curation is hard on online platforms, it’s doubly hard when the content is streaming out live in front of you in real time.
Want to know what’s not interesting? Watching somebody sit on a stool and read questions from a piece of paper. Want to know what is interesting? Watching people practice and demo active listening and interject to ask the follow-up questions you were probably thinking in your head all along. You don’t need to look back on your question list for that.
As a moderator, your focus needs to be on the what’s taking place in front of you, not what you wrote on a piece of paper. I repeat: DO NOT BRING A QUESTION LIST ON STAGE. Instead, look for moments to bounce off, probe deeper, and even encourage a bit of sparring debate among the panelists. If you do this, you can help transform moderation into the effective content consumption outlet it was always designed to be.
Here are my five cardinal rules for how to do it well:
The 5 Rules of [Effective] Panel Moderation
Rule #1: It’s not about you.
If you’re in the moderator seat, your ego needs to go out the door right away. Remember this: People are not there to see you: They are there to see everyone else. If this makes you sad, then don’t take the gig. If you’d rather “be seen,” then sign up for a speaker at a smaller event and work your way up.
Pro Tips: Spend as little time as possible on your own intro. Don’t feel like you need to comment on every answer. Instead of adding your own story, ask a better question. Keep in mind that it’s your job to make these people look good. You know you’re doing a good job if all of your panelists are flooded with attendees asking them 1-on-1 questions after it ends.
Rule #2: It’s also not about them.
Wait, did you think the panel was about what all of the speakers wanted to talk about? I mean…it is…but only sort of. Even if a biomedical engineer has the most interesting research project in the world to discuss, it won’t matter at all if you’re putting her in front of a group of electronic dance music fanatics. The most important thing is to know your audience. If you don’t know who’s in the room, you can’t facilitate a discussion they’ll care about. Period. Another important reminder along these lines: it’s okay (and even important) to cut off panelists who speak too long. There’s nothing worse than a panel discussion that lets one person tell long-winded stories without giving anyone else a chance to interject. I’ve been “the one whose air time gets cut.” It sucks.
Pro Tips: As a moderator (and not event organizer), you’re likely kept in the dark about who’s in the room. But guess what? You’re in charge of the room now (or at least for the next 25 minutes). Figure out who they are. Find ways to engage the room. I like asking people to turn to the person next to them and chat for 2 minutes. You can also ask attendees to raise their hands if they associate with a particular thing or even call on people in the audience to share stories. As for cutting people off in run-ons, look for effective transitions like: “Let’s pause on that for a moment” or “Interesting point. Does anyone else feel differently?”
Rule #3: The first question is irrelevant. (The art is in the follow-ups.)
Yes, it’s important to come prepared with some vague idea of what you want to talk about. I even like aligning the panel ahead of time over email to make sure we have collective buy-in about the topics and themes that I’d like to discuss. But effective planning doesn’t make a difference to the live audience: It’s all about effective execution. And this means asking probing questions to dig deeper into a conversation topic that comes up naturally.
You might ask: “Tell me about your career path to get you where you are today.” Someone might respond: “Okay, so I have a bit of a non-traditional background. I was an army brat and we lived in 10 different countries growing up. By the time I moved to the U.S. I knew I wanted to major in business and after my first job in sales at a failed fin-tech startup, I knew I had the drive to start my own thing.”
You should not say, “Thank you, Eve” and move on.
You should ask what everybody else is thinking: “Whoa WAIT. TEN COUNTRIES? What was THAT like? How do you think THAT impacted your entrepreneurial journey?”
Pro Tips: Rather than look to your questions like a set of required checkboxes, look to them as guideposts to come back to if things get stale. Plan to not cover everything you prepared to discuss. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to individuals and probe deeper on things that interest you. The more specific the example you can get them to divulge, the more rewarding and relatable it is for everyone else in the room.
Rule #4: It’s not important for everybody to answer every question.
This is the worst. It often lends itself to the “I agree with…” pitfall that is just horrendously boring, wastes time, and adds no value. Remember: People want to be asked questions that are pertinent to them. It’s totally fine to prime a question with: “Okay, Lauren, given your background in marketing, I’d love to know what you think of Facebook’s dominance over online ads.” If you sense other people on the panel getting antsy about not being asked, call on them next. If not, don’t worry about it. Remember: Everyone has a microphone. If they really want to say something, they will.
By the way, this situation is particularly problematic when you open up the panel to the moderator’s nightmare: The open forum question from the audience. As soon as you turn over the reins to people sitting out there, you invite a million possibilities into the mix — and let’s be real, most people are bad at asking questions. Just because you didn’t ask the question doesn’t mean you can’t moderate the response. If you feel like somebody asked a wildcard question, wait for one panelist to address it, then move on quickly to the next one. That one guy may not like it, but everyone else will thank you.
Pro Tips: Rather than fixate on the importance of equality of speaking, consider the value of the content being shared. It’s more valuable for everyone to go deeper with one person than shallower on everyone else. So probe more and ask for examples to illustrate the concepts being discussed. Hitting on something real also helps you move from theoretical business school jargon into real world, real life examples.
Rule #5: It is important to start and end on a high note.
You only need to have two things locked in concrete by the time you set foot on stage: Your intro quip and your exit question. The intro is the moment to prime why you are all on stage. This is also your opportunity to test who is in the room. You can then state that intention out loud: “Today, we’re going to cover best practices in building online communities by learning from three experts who can share what’s worked and what hasn’t from many different online platforms.” As you say that thing, look around the room for recognition. Do people seem jazzed? Engaged? Bored? You need to read the room and then be prepared to change course accordingly. Once, in the midst of a long-winded interview where I sensed people were losing interest in the audience, I paused the middle of the discussion and asked everyone to turn to the person to their right and share one thing they planned to do different in the next week based on what they learned. That energy reset went a long way in finishing out the conversation.
But don’t forget to prepare both bookends. A problem I see often is panels is when some random event organizer loudly announces that we have time for only one more question, then some audience member asked a horrifyingly specific question to her particular problem that nobody else can relate to. As a moderator, this is a terrible way to end. So don’t let the randomness of the room impact your big finish.
Pro Tips: Before you present, think of one way to engage the audience and one key intention to set for the conversation. Then, prepare one final question in advance— something that everybody can ideally answer in just one sentence. It might be a piece of advice, their favorite [insert whatever here], or something else that you can compartmentalize into a bite-sized bit. That way, the panelists end on a high note and the room’s last impression is one of finesse and utility.
Own the experience
I really believe that moderating thoughtful conversations is one of the most rewarding ways to participate in a live event. You not only get the privilege to ask smart people intelligent questions to help them share their expertise with others, but you also get to learn in real time along with everyone else.
The next time you’re invited to moderate a panel discussion, I hope you own the opportunity for what it is — a chance to help uncover interesting tidbits, secrets, and real-world examples from incredibly smart people. And in case you have any other tips (or need a moderator for a future event), please let me know.