Public Speaking

10 Do's and Don'ts for Moderating a Panel Discussion

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As an entrepreneur, part of any solid marketing and public relations plan will likely involve you (or key spokespeople from your company) hitting what I like to call the “speaker-panelist-moderator” circuit.

If you’re naturally good at public speaking and can keep an audience engaged for at least thirty minutes straight, keynotes and presentations may be your thing. If you’re an expert who enjoys sparring with your peers, then your PR dream team will probably pitch you as a panelist extraordinaire. The moderator slot, which is often the most challenging, is typically saved for the best listeners who also have a knack for the “art of conversation.” These folks are great at improvisation, know a tremendous amount about any given subject, and understand what it takes to avoid facilitating an audience slumber party.

Related: 6 Steps to Overcoming Stage Fright and Giving a Presentation Everybody Listens To

HINT: When people are literally falling asleep, or obsessively checking their devices every 10 seconds out of sheer boredom, then you have a code-red slumber party situation.

So…think you’re up for moderating a panel with Dell’s C-suite, Amazon’s IT executives, or Microsoft’s founders? Check out these dos and don’ts from some of the best moderators in the biz before taking the plunge, and you’ll be well on your way to nailing it.

1. Do over prepare

“Know everything you can about your panelists and the topic,” says Porter Gale, author of Your Network Is Your Net Worth and moderator exemplar. “Make sure you know some fun facts that demonstrate the depth of your knowledge. Examples could include past career moves, personal stories, quotes from presentations they’ve given or articles they’ve written.”

2. Don’t worry about a pre-call

As digital media and advertising analyst for Altimeter Group, Rebecca Lieb has moderated her fair share of panels: “Don't break your neck getting your panelists on an advance call. It's like herding cats. Instead, solicit input on the topic from people individually, and then send a bulletin to the entire group on the topics and questions you'll cover.”

While this may seem counterintuitive, I’ve taken this tip to heart and it has made my life, and everyone else’s, much easier. Your panelists will thank you, as will their executive assistants, PR reps, and anyone else who may be part of their posse.

3. Do get to know your audience

The fourth-wall thing is useful during Shakespearean theater performances and the ballet, but something truly special happens if you can integrate the audience throughout a panel.

“Meet as many people in the audience as you can prior to the panel and include their stories or comment about their business in the dialog,” adds Gale.

This is spectacular advice. A trick I use that has not only made me more comfortable, but can prove to be a slumber party hack: Pick three or four people to chat with a few minutes before you kick off the discussion, find out where they are from, why they are there, what interests them and if they are comfortable sharing their thoughts throughout the panel, then weave their contributions into the conversation.

4. Don’t let a panelist go too far down the rabbit hole

Eventually, someone on a panel you moderate is going to develop a serious case of motor mouth. We’ve all seen this happen. It can grow dangerously uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Lieb’s advice here is spot on: “Know how to cut someone off, definitively but politely. Your job is to save the conversation for the panel, the audience, and maintain the dignity of the unfortunate person who is rabbiting on long after the point has been made.”

5. Do stay on time

As a moderator, it’s your job to pay attention to the clock!

“An effective moderator is one who ensures that each panel member gets equal time to provide his or her views on a particular topic of discussion,” says Dippak Khurana, co-founder and CEO of Vserv.

A truly great moderator will intervene if one panelist is taking majority of the time (see #4 above), if a panelist is veering off-topic, or if the general conversation is careening into no man’s land. Well-timed questions and answers, and the moderator’s ability to almost “feel” the pace of the discussion, will typically ensure the audience stays engaged and interested.

Related: So, You're an Industry Expert Now? How to Prepare for a Speaking Gig.

6. Don’t make assumptions about your panelists

You want to make sure your panelists are really comfortable. So, in addition to making sure you know what they are speaking to, also find out if there are issues they are not comfortable addressing.

“This might sound like overkill, but it's really not,” says Shonali Burke, who regularly moderates panels and coaches her clients on the subject as well.

“Say a panelist is with a firm that's currently in the midst of a crisis, or being closely watched by the media. Knowing what they officially can or can't speak to ahead of time - and how to professionally draw that line during the panel if needed - will relieve a great deal of stress on their part, which will make your job a little easier.”

7. Do have a say in panelist selection if possible

You were presumably asked to moderate because you have domain expertise. That means you know other experts on the topic, and if they're good at speaking (or not).

“I was once saddled with a highly qualified panelist who had never before spoken in public,” reflects Lieb. “The poor woman was backstage, sick to her stomach moments before we were 'on.' Try to take a collaborative role with the event organizer - this is the type of pitfall an experienced moderator can head off at the pass.”

8. Don’t be afraid to create controversy

Panel #fails usually happen for three reasons:

1.  No one shows up.

2. The panelists are self-involved and boring.

3. Everyone agrees with each other about everything.

Khurana points out: “It is important to entertain, enrich and thereby engage the audience by breaking conventional conversations and pushing the panel members to come up with interesting content.”

During the prep phase, encourage your panelists to come up with various opinions and points of view on the topic to ensure at least 25 percent of the conversation drives “counter-point” feedback.

9. Do make the accompanying presentation digestible and useful

We've all heard enough stories of "death by PowerPoint." While, to date, I have not heard of PowerPoint being arrested on criminal charges, you get the point.

“If you're creating slides, encourage your panelists to keep them as visual as possible,” adds Burke.

“Additionally, if you're using slides, insert a pre-determined hashtag on each of them, as well as the panelists' Twitter handles; this makes it much easier for live-tweeting to take place. An introductory slide with the Wi-Fi information is also very useful to attendees.

10. Don’t inadvertently facilitate a biased panel

Although not as obvious, Khurana makes a final observation that I think is an important one:

“Another important aspect for a moderator to keep in mind is that the conversation should not be biased,” says Khurana. “It should not favor any one particular speaker’s point of view over another, and the moderator should ensure that the conversation is balanced.”

This reiterates the importance of the moderator, and how tricky this job can be. Your role is to essentially be a well-informed Switzerland. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Now that you are armed with the best moderator tips out there, off you go to rule the conference circuit world.

Related: 7 Powerful Public Speaking Tips From One of the Most-Watched TED Talks Speakers