How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel, A Comprehensive Guide

This post has now become recommended reading for moderators at Ad:Tech 2008, SXSW 2011 (see FAQ #10), and previous Web 2.0 Expo events.

Most Panels Suck: How To Stand out from Others
Sadly, the value of most panels are really poor, and this is mostly due to the lack of moderation. Yesterday, I heard that one nervous moderator asked the panelists to introduce themselves (which was his job), then went directly to Q&A, providing little structured value to the audience. On the complete opposite end, I’ve seen one self-important moderator answer questions from the crowd, when it was his job to field questions to the panelists.

How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel:


Objectives and Ideology

Think of the audience as your customers
Treat the audience like your customers, they’ve paid with money and time to come to your panel. Your job is to give them the information they need, or to entertain them, and often both. You’ve one of the most difficult jobs as you’ll have to set the pace, maintain some control, but know when to back off. Remember that you’re here to serve the audience first and panelists second.

Picking the right panel members
Often, a moderator is asked to select the panel, this isn’t always the case, but more than likely you will be involved in the approval process. Find folks that are experts in the field and have varying points of view. I find that 3-4 panelists is ideal, any less becomes difficult to flesh out all the viewpoints , and anymore becomes unwieldy. One time, I was 1 of 5 panelists, and I think I spoke a total of 5 minutes, a real waste of time.

Find out what success looks like
Look at the context of the conference, what is it about? who is attending? what are the other panels? Ask the conference organizers what success would look like, what questions does the audience want answered and what is their level of sophistication?


Preparation

Get to know the panelists
This is often difficult as many panels never meet in advance, but in our social world many folks are online and can be found. Do Google searches on their name and the topic at hand, and you may be surprised what you find online.

Research the topic
The most entertaining panels have a dash of debate, look at an issue from many angles, practical steps to get started, and tell a few jokes. Find where the points of contention are and be sure to bring it up, this is how you’ll bill the panel. Use a blog post, Twitter or other feedback tool to glean questions from the community.

Properly market the panel
Successful panels will often have a title that is catchy, in tune for the conference, and has a detailed summary of what the audience will get out of it. You should blog about the upcoming panel, and the panelists should too.

Develop agenda bulletpoints
I try to establish some general high level bullets, 3-5 is good, so it helps the panelists to prepare and research. Don’t get into overly detailed questions, you never want them to be overly rehereased. I always have some secondary questions if no one asks questions, and it’s best to throw some curve balls to panelists after they warm up.

Have prepared notes
Print out the research you did of their bios, points of contention, the high level agenda, and follow up questions you may want to do. I’m known for requiring the panelists to bring a case study or example with measurable results.

Before you use powerpoints, really think it through
In most cases, panels should focus on the discussion and interaction between the panelists. Presentations should only be used in these situations: They add value by visualizing a conceptual concept, you’ve some industry stats that preface the event, or there’s a funny video that gets the crowd warmed up. Have a mental checklist: Is this going to add value? Does this give each panelist an equal response? Is this truly necessary?

Have a pre-briefing meeting
It’s really hard to get panelists to all get on the phone together, I can only think of a few times when this has worked. Instead, have a quick meeting in person before the panel actually happens, it will only take 15 minutes. This is good bonding time, be sure to remind them of the general structure, but make sure they’re relaxed and going to have fun. Listen carefully to the conversation, as you’ll pick up interest points that will help you setup questions while on stage.

Housekeeping
Prepare all your notes, laptops, make sure everyone has water before you get on stage, in some cases, plan out where folks will sit. Remind the panelists, yourself, and the audience to turn off cell phones. Smile a lot, and have fun…ok, now we get on stage.


On Stage

Be a leader and know the impact of body language
I’ve studied this a few times, when I moderate, the body language I give off will be echoed by the panelists. If I sit up straight, or if you fidget, they will follow, the same happens when you speak. Look at the panelist when you ask a question, then look at the audience (they will follow suit), If you look at the panelists after you’ve asked a question, they will instinctively look back at you, an odd site to the audience. Unless responding to another panelists, the panelist should be addressing the audience so keep your attention on the customer.

Set the stage by providing context
As the first speaker the moderator should set the stage by quickly give an overview of why this panel was accepted, and what you’re going to cover. I tend to avoid the usual banter about ‘how this panel is going to be great’ or make length introductions about panelists, that usual pretty-talk is often low value. Next, give a brief introduction about the panelists –but save the lengthy bios for the pamphlet or website — folks know how to read. (submitted by Dave Pelland)

The first question should be a warm up
You should tee-up the crowd, and the panelists by asking a broad, easy question. Ask for a definition, or talk about the history of the topic, or why this topic is so interesting to the panelists.

Ask about benefits and opportunities
Some moderators let them conversation dive into the weeds too fast, focusing on ratty details, nuts and bolts before prefacing ‘why’ these things are important in the first place. Guide the panelists to discuss the benefits, and why these things are great in the first place.

Ask about risks, challenge the panel
The audience is tired of industry zealots. We all know the panelists are passionate experts in their field, but you need to ensure a balanced viewpoint is given. Give an example of how it’s not worked, and then ask the panelists to explore the risks. Give them the opportunity to talk about overcoming pitfalls, your audience won’t want to make the same mistakes.

Monitor the back channel
Monitor the “backchannel” which are conversations in IRC, Meebo, or Twitter about your panel. After the very disruptive revolt at SXSW 2008, moderators and speakers need to pay attention to how the audience (customers) are responding to what’s happening on stage. As Web 2.0 expo, I scanned twitter via my mobile device in real time and made live changes. (added March 2008)


When to Assert Control

Never let panelists pitch
This one really irritates the audience, as they’ve spent time and money investing in a panel, they don’t want to hear vendor pitches. Typically, when one vendor talks about how great his company is, the next panelists will need to one-up, and it never ends. The moderator needs to pre-warn panelists that won’t tolerate this vile deed, and will cut them off in public, and that’s embarrassing for everyone. BTW: If you’re in the audience and you see this happen, you have a right as a customer to demand them to stop, if not, vote with your feet and complain to the organizers, or ask a pro-rated payment of your wasted time.

…but let them tell a case study
I prefer that panelists demonstrate their expertise by showing their experts in the field, or provide a case study how their customers have been successful. There is a very thin division between this and a vendor pitch, so it’s best to remember that a panel is more like a white paper, not a brochure.

Keep on track
Panels will often get off-track to new discussions, while that’s certainly normal, your job is to gently bring it back into context. You’ll have to re frame a question or ask for further explanation on the topic.

Redirect panel hogs
Although rare, some panelists will overstep themselves and overpower the other panelists. It’s your duty to find an appropriate time (watch for when they breathe) and interject in a nice way. Compliment their opinion, and be sure to pass a question to the deserving panelist. (Insights from a concall with Warren Pickett of Ad:Tech)


Interaction gives life to a panel

Listen in
Watch the body language of the panelists, the one who wants to get a word in will be giving you non-verbal indicators, the audience will give off vibes of attention, boredom, or even disagreement. You’ll find little disagreements between panelists, be sure to pick up on those to segue to the next panelists, ask them for a contradictory point of view. This can be difficult.

Let the panelists talk to each other
Don’t over structure your panel by leading into a moderator question and response pattern alone, allow for some healthy banter between the panelists, and let them chatter, jab, and joke among each other.

Know when to pass the mic
Don’t let any particular panelists dominate the session over others, you can interject between their breaths and quickly pose the same question to the other panelists. I realize this seems rude, but this is your job, you represent the audiences time

Know when to shut up
I’ve been a panelist many times, and have certainly been annoyed when some moderators go too far, they may try to make it more of a game show, insert too much humor, or answer the questions from the audience. Don’t be that guy. Success happens when good conversation starts to take place on it’s own, and you only need to gently guide.

Field questions from the audience
Always repeat the question from the audience, so everyone can hear and it’ll get on any recordings. Summarize long winded questions from the audience. Don’t let an over active commentator steal the show by asking too many questions, suggest that some discussion can be followed-up after the event. If there are no mics in the audience, you may need to walk down and bring the mic to them. Ensure that the questions are spread from different folks, and only let a single person ask a second question once everyone has had a chance.

Two Rules for Q&A: State your name, and make sure the question is a question
Questions are key to drive interaction, but before you take questions, let the audience know these two rules:  1) Get context from those that are asking questions on their name and company, this way the panelists can respond to first name to those who are asking, and have greater understanding. 2) Require that questions actually be questions.  We’ve all experienced the self-promoting pitch or the lengthy diatribe from an passionate audience member, so make sure the focus is still on the experts on stage.  The rest of the audience will appreciate it.


Wrapping things up

Ending the panel
Finally, at the end, let the members talk about where they can be found online, or where others can learn more about them. It’s best if you start, in order to set an example. “I work at company X in Y role, I can be found online at Z”. Thank the panel and audience, then prepare for the audience to come up to the stage and have 1:1 discussions.

Encourage the discussion to move online
Often the conversation between the panelists and members was so engaging that the never want to stop discussing it. Create a wiki, forum, or Facebook group to continue the conversation. Also assign tags at the session so that anyone who is blogging about it will be found. If you’re a blogger you may want to write up a wrap-up and link to anyone who took pictures. Thanks to Zena in the comments for this suggestion.

Final touches
Later, send a thank you email to all the panelists, keep in touch with them, and always cherish how well this has gone for you. Congratulations! you’ve just moderated a successful panel!


This is just my perspective, be sure to read what others have written on this topic:

  • eHow: How to Moderate a Panel
  • Derek Powazek: How to Moderate a panel
  • Guy Kawasaki: How To Be a Great Moderator
  • Paul Kedrosky: 10 Rules for Being a Great Panel Moderator
  • David Spark has a very clever guide for multiple roles
  • If this post helped you moderate a panel, or you’ve further suggestions, please leave a comment.

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    • Sabrina

      I would be hosting a panel in a week from now and found this article very very helpful. Thanks and keep them coming!

    • http://twitter.com/Yazziness Diana

      Thanks for the sound advice. Yes, it isn’t always possible to get all the panelists on the phone together but If you could get 2 or 3, it’s a good start!

    • http://www.facebook.com/wahid.islam2 Wahid Islam

      thanks for the support. it will really help a new moderator like me.

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    • Robert G. Joyce

      “The first question should be a warm up.”  Why?  If you are prepared, you can ask a hard and interesting question or an easy question and ask them to state why it is incomplete/inaccurate.  What do the people in the audience want to know (additional excellent point above)?  Bob Joyce  P.S.  I would “Like” this very much, but Facebook/Linked-In all of a sudden says I don’t exist.  

    • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

      For the advanced panelist and moderator you can ask a tough and provocative question: Arrington does this.

    • Yolayo

      Will be going for a baptism as a comorderator. Your cogent advice will be handy. Thanks.

    • neity

      the notes above are a good confidence boost to remind us of key points on conference moderation with panels. i like the bit that the audience is the consumer and that moderators are facilitators….i have seen many events where moderators do more talking than the panelists!!! a balance is very necessary and role definition. thanks

    • http://twitter.com/cindylosa Enda C. Sitepu

      Tomorrow will be my first moderating experience. This post is really helpful! Thanks!

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