The Grind

How to Successfully Moderate a Panel

How to Successfully Moderate a Panel
Image credit: Frédéric BISSON | Flickr
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As Practice Makes Perfect -- a nonprofit that partners with schools and operates their summer school program in inner-city neighborhoods, supporting students from elementary school to college matriculation -- has continued to grow and evolve, my role within the organization has also continued to change. One of the biggest differences is the flexibility I have been afforded to share our story with a larger audience across the U.S.  

Earlier this year, I was invited to moderate a panel with 11 other entrepreneurs and was given less than one hour to extract wisdom for an audience of college students, alumni and university faculty. Having sat on over a dozen panels at that point, I was excited to do all of the right things as a moderator and ensure that my audience and panelists were engaged. (We have all seen the panels where one panelist rambles on for too long and the other panelists and audience doze off. Or the panels where the moderator abruptly cuts people off and asks questions in a very predictable manner.)

Related: Want to be a Rock-Star Panelist? Sheryl Sandberg's Media Coach Offers Up Some Tips.

I was honored to host a panel of such exceptional entrepreneurs. And at the end of the session, I was even more relieved to know they thought it was successful. Here are my six tips to ensure that there is fruitful discussion during your next panel.

Do your homework upfront.

Spend some time pulling information on the panelists from their public profiles. If they’re entrepreneurs look for interesting things in their startup journey. Understand what they do.  This will allow you to draw parallels among the panelists.

Before the panel, I knew I had a set of serial entrepreneurs and a few co-founder pairs. This meant I could get group perspectives and save a few minutes when the pairs addressed questions.

Know your audience.

If you don’t have a strong understanding of who is in the audience, ask the event coordinator. Your audience should always dictate the content. If you are an event coordinator, share the audience information with the panelists so everyone can tailor their content to the audience.

Set the objective and then design the questions.

This might sound obvious but make sure the panel has a goal or a purpose. Sometimes the event coordinator will give you this information, sometimes they won’t. If they don’t, make sure you spend the time coming up with an objective. Even if it is as simple as “inform the audience about entrepreneurship.” Once you have an objective, the questions will be easier to tailor. The most important part of the question design element is to anticipate the responses. If you can envision the responses, you will be better equipped to steer the conversation in a direction that will accomplish your objective.

Related: To Make a Big Impression Keep These Tiny Words Out of Your Presentations

Prepare the panelists.

Don’t forget about the panelists. They need to know how the conversation will flow. They need to know their expectations. And I personally believe they should absolutely know the questions in advance. Share with them how long you envision their responses and ask that they give each of the questions a few minutes of thought before they meet for the panel. Most importantly, let them know how you will police bad panel members. You have to ensure that your panelists trust you as a moderator so they are engaged and contribute to the conversation. As you’re designing your questions, try and mix in questions that will elicit short responses and some that will prompt longer responses. Make sure you remind them of this just before the panel starts.

Moderating is important, too.

I told my panel members that there would be no surprise questions to throw them off. With that said, I opened with a lightning round of introductory questions. When I met the panel members in person, I reminded them that there would be no surprises -- but to keep them and the audience members on their toes I would call on them randomly. Make a point to look for organic times in the conversation to add your perspective. Don’t be so scripted that you don’t hear what the panelists are saying. When possible, find trends and ask the panel members to elaborate on things that sound interesting.

If possible, have a Q&A.

We were able to get through our content in a sufficient amount of time to allow the audience to ask questions. Since we were in a more intimate setting and the panel was as large as it was, I limited the Q&A so that the audience members could meet the individual panelists. This worked really well in the set up that we had. 

Related: Why You Should Make Time to Speak Up for Your Business