Most of you would likely say that speaking on a panel is more difficult and requires more preparation than moderating one. And I'd say you're incorrect.
The role of the moderator is critical to the success of the panel, success being defined as how much value both the audience and the panelists derive from the experience. Contrary to what some may think, the moderator doesn't just keep time or make sure that everyone gets an equal say.
Here are 10 tips that will help moderators ensure that their audience stays engaged with the dialogue and their panelists stay on track.
1. Act as the Audience's Advocate As moderator, you need to be consistently monitoring the audience to read their reactions and determine if you need to make any modifications to the order of questions, length of remarks or anything about the physical space. Too often, the moderator is focused on the panelists, what they're saying and who's hogging the mic. But according to Jeremiah Owyang, in his blog post, How To Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel, a moderator should serve the audience, not the panelists.
2. Hold a Pre-Event Briefing When I say pre-event, I don't mean an hour before the panel is to start. A couple of weeks before the panel presentation, the moderator should meet with the panelists (conference call is fine, although face-to-face is better, if feasible), review the objectives of the presentation, the general framework and share an overview of the questions and tips for being a successful panelist.
Depending on the moderator's subject matter expertise and the panel organizer's style, the moderator may develop the questions or be given them. The goal of the briefing is to get everyone comfortable enough with the topic area and each others' contributions that the presentation appears smooth and seamless. Specific guidelines (for example, strict adherence to time frames, no self promotion) should be covered.
3. Make Short, Interesting Introductions The audience really doesn't want to sit through long, boring introductions filled with presenter accomplishments, degrees and awards. Instead, make the intros short (about 30 seconds each), briefly establish why each panelist is qualified to be there and include some details about what contribution she's going to make to the audience or why he's passionate about the topic.
4. Set the Stage Up Front At the outset, let the audience know what is (and perhaps isn't) going to be covered, how the panelists will make the topic relevant for the audience, any general guidelines about timing (e.g., each panelist will make a 10 minute presentation and then we will take questions) or format (e.g., this presentation is being taped so you will be able to access a recording on the website tomorrow). Be sure to let the audience know any other relevant information or restrictions such as ~ when and where to direct questions; handout availability; any scheduled breaks.
5. Manage the Timing and Balance One of the biggest complaints about panels is that speakers sometimes ramble on unstopped. The moderator orchestrates the energy of the dialogue by knowing when to politely interrupt a verbose panelist or when to ask a follow up question on a hot topic. The moderator should also facilitate reasonably even "air time" for each panelist. Know when to ask a different panelist to answer a question or address another aspect of the topic.
6. Be Prepared and Be Flexible Know generally what the panelists are going to say and prepare some follow up questions or comments that you can interject to keep the discussion moving and engaging. Be cautious not to play panel ping pong, where you ask a follow up question after each panelist's answer, making it look all too scripted and structured.
Be well enough prepared that, if the audience ventures into an unplanned aspect of the topic, you can be comfortable pursuing it as long as you believe it will further the overall objective
7. Don't Answer Questions Directed at Panelists Check your ego at the door. As the moderator, your job is to facilitate dialogue between the audience and the panelists, synthesize ideas or comments for the audience and keep the flow going smoothly. This is a far greater contribution than showing off your subject matter expertise.
8. Be Aware of Your Body Language Even though you may not be speaking as much as the panelists, you're just as much on show. As in any presentation, be aware of any distracting habits you may have. Don't check your iPhone, shuffle papers, chat with the person next to you or gaze off into space. Be involved and actively listening.
9. Develop a Strategy for Questions Questions can enrich a presentation or derail it. Decide ahead of time, with the panelists, how you will manage questions. Are you going to take them from the floor throughout the presentation or are you going to have a dedicated Q&A session?
Here are some options you can use to manage questions: have participants write out their questions and have a coordinator collect them; ask questioner to direct his question to a specific panelist so that every panelist doesn't have to weigh in if they don't have anything relevant to add; don't keep calling on the same person(s) in the audience; have some contingency questions prepared for the panel in case no one in the audience asks any. However you get the questions, be sure to repeat them so everyone in the audience can hear.
10.Look at Audience, Not Panelists Refer back to #1. You should spend most of your time observing the audience and directing your comments to them. When asking a panelist a question, look at that person while you are speaking and then look back at the audience.
Being a good moderator is a tougher and more important job than you may think. No matter how brilliant the individual panelists, it is the moderator who blends their content with the audience's needs to produce the perfect outcome.
What other tips or best practices do you have to share...either from the perspective of being in the audience or being a moderator?
Other resources on the topic of panels: