Some friendly advice on moderating panel discussions

The panel discussion format at events is so ubiquitous it’s come to feel boring. That’s a mistake. The format can be effective. It’s just routinely done badly.

At its core, a panel is just meant to be a conversation. Nobody hates conversations that are lively, honest and informative. The problem, then, is in execution not format. One of the key features is the moderator.

This has become a bit of a cause of mine. I’ve found that many event producers slot in the moderator role with the least thought, when it’s instead the most important. No surprise I find your average journalist is better equipped than most, but it’s no requirement.

After an email exchange with a friend, I wanted to share a few quick tips for those who take on the role.

  • Start the panel with your point. What do you hope your attendees will get from the conversation? Be specific.
  • “Set the table” with context and repeat structure. What is the story
  • Every panel discussion is an act of journalism. These are live interviews with multiple sources. A good panel conversation should be as if someone just read a longform piece on something compelling.
  • Help your attendees understand. If you don’t understand what a panelist just said, clarify. If there are acronyms or missing context, give it. You should help the attendee get value.
  • Call people out — in the crowd and who have spoken before, it makes the event more intimate. Break the fourth-wall.
  • Have fun. If you’re happy to be there, your energy comes across to attendees.
  • Encourage and welcome dissent. You can keep things civil but help attendees resist
  • Make it conversational. Just like if a friend is being too over-bearing, try to make sure each speaker on the panel shines.
  • Make it interactive. If there’s a question and answer period,
  • Manage time. It’s on you to make sure everyone feels their time is being well-spent.
  • Get the data and stories. You want facts and evocative stories that people will leave thinking about.
  • Make the organizers happy. Thank whoever did the hard work of hosting; I personally feel comfortable thanking sponsors. The conversation doesn’t happen without them
  • Now what? Give people other resources on the way out.
  • Don’t host man-els. I’ve made a commitment to not moderate a panel if the speakers are only male, or only white. Help bring new voices and wider backgrounds.

The above image is from the All Star Panel – BE.INnovative Symposium in Brooklyn in April 2016.

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