How To Moderate A Panel

You are the one that can make a panel session a success
You are the one that can make a panel session a success
Image Credit: Anders Sandberg

As speakers we can become comfortable standing in front of an audience giving a speech because we know about the importance of public speaking. However, if we are asked to be the moderator of a panel everything changes. It’s almost like we will be giving a speech, but we can’t practice this one beforehand. Additionally, there are a lot of things that we are going to have to do in order to get the most out of our panel members. We are going to have to use all of our speaking skills in order to make moderating a panel a success.

What Does A Panel Moderator Do?

If you want to be a great panel moderator, first you have to understand what they do. A great panel moderator is really like a great party host, making everyone feel welcome, knowing how to avoid or handle lulls, knowing how to get a conversation going between others, knowing how to rescue someone from an inappropriate or overly long conversation, and knowing how to wrap things up when it’s time for the party to end. This is all done with alertness and diplomacy, and without expecting to be the center of attention. Just as an excellent party requires careful preparation, so too does an excellent panel. Here is what a moderator can do before the panel is held to ensure that guests – panelists and the audience – have a positive experience.

Analyze Your Audience

When planning a panel, as moderator you need to identify the target audience and research the needs and interests of audience members. When the panel presents a timely issue that the audience cares about, you will set the stage for a popular panel discussion.

Select The Right Participants

Along with the right topic, it’s important to select the right panelists in order to ensure a packed event. You should invite thought leaders and newsmakers who have credibility on the issue, as well as an important point of view. You want to showcase a range of perspectives. You need to seek out panelists who are dynamic speakers; the best authorities won’t make good panelists if they aren’t compelling presenters. Likewise, select speakers who are willing to present within the topic or time constraints of the panel. Some high profile speakers have a stump speech and will not tailor their presentation for specific audiences and situations. You should find someone who will.

You need to aim high. When you identify the perfect presenter for your panel, you should extend an invitation. The reason that you want to do this is because the perfect panelist cannot say “yes” if you don’t ask. Always research and contact one or two potential panelists beyond the number you need, just in case of cancellations. Each industry and conference can differ, but most panels have three to five panelists. You’ll want to strive for balance between breadth and depth – have a range of perspectives and enough time for a thorough discussion. Make sure to include time for questions from the audience, as well as answers from and exchanges between panelists.

Always Confirm and Reconfirm

After your panelists accept, make sure to confirm the time, date and location in writing. Always explain your vision for the panel: what the desired outcome is, why particular panelists were chosen, what each panelist should address to avoid repetition, how long each person should speak and how the question-and-answer session will be handled. You can include any other relevant details on accommodations or registration. In order to avoid any surprises or competition for the microphone, warn panelists that their comments may be cut short if they exceed their time limits. Moderators should then schedule a conference call with panelists prior to the event.

Some of the best panels happen when the moderator has a pre-event conference call with all the panelists. The moderator is then able to determine the particular strengths and specialties of each of the panelist within the subject matter, and is able to pre-agree on a few subjects to cover to ensure a balanced debate that can spark lots of questions. The key is for you to listen to the suggestions of the panel on your vision for the session. This will ensure that both the agenda is well suited to the panelists and that they are comfortable with the focus of the session. A few days before show time, make sure to reconfirm in writing, going into more logistical detail. You need to find out what technology, if any, panelists will need. If your presenters are using PowerPoint slides, get them in advance to ensure compatibility and ease of transition. Provide the time and location you’d like panelists to meet before the program, as well as phone numbers where you can be reached up to the last minute.

Make Sure To Craft An Agenda

You need to craft a detailed agenda after your conference call, taking the specialties and suggestions of panelists into consideration. Be sure to list the exact time that each panelist is scheduled to present, as well as timelines for other agenda items. Each of your panelists should receive a copy of the agenda ahead of time so that they know what to prepare, such as opening remarks or responses to specific questions that you will ask. Bring a copy of the agenda for each panelist on the day of the session and put it at his or her assigned seat.

You need to prepare and bring copies of backup agendas. An example of this is an agenda aimed at a session that is 15 or 30 minutes shorter than the time originally allotted. Since conferences often run late, this will allow you to help organizers get back on schedule. Another alternative agenda should account for a session that is missing one panelist, so you can adjust for a last-minute cancellation.

Decide if you will introduce all panelists during the opening, or introduce each panelist right before he or she gives individual opening remarks. You can ask panelists to provide an introduction ahead of time. Most will probably send a page-long biography that must be shortened and made relevant to the panel discussion. Keep in mind that a good introduction is 30 to 60 seconds long, highlights the most interesting and important aspects of a panelist’s credentials and provides a teaser of his or her remarks. Make sure that an introduction also includes the preferred title and correct pronunciation of each panelist’s name and affiliation.

What All Of This Means For You

Being asked to moderate a panel should be viewed as a great compliment. As a speaker, you are uniquely positioned to do a good job at this job because you understand the benefits of public speaking. However, you need to realize that being a moderator is not the same thing as being a speaker. Yes, you will have a chance to speak to the audience; however, this time around it is not all about you. In order to host a successful panel session, you are going to have to first do a number of different things.

The first thing that you are going to have to do is to understand just exactly what a panel moderator does. They are the people who work with the panel members, make the session go smoothly, and deal with any issues that may come up. You will need to make sure that you know who is in your audience. You will have to carefully pick the best people to be on your panel. After you’ve gotten confirmation that people will be on your panel, you will need to both confirm with them and reconfirm with them. Every panel session has to have an agenda and you are the person who will need to create it. On the big day, you will be the one who introduces the members of your panel so make sure that you’ve worked out what you’ll say with them.

Putting on a panel session can be an exhausting experience. As a speaker we are familiar with all of the steps that we have to go through in order to make an event happen. However, when we are the moderator for a panel session, what is different for us is that there are other people involved. We need to find ways to work with them and to find ways to get the best out of them during our session. Take the time and do all of the things that you have to do and you’ll be able to deliver a panel session that your audience will be talking about for a long time to come.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: What should a panel moderator do if a panel member does not show up?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So just exactly what does disaster look like to a speaker? I think that we can all agree that disaster can take on many forms when it comes to delivering a speech in public. However, I think that if you are on a stage and you lose your train of thought and can’t remember what you wanted to say next, then that can count as a speaking disaster. This is something that can happen to any of us at any time. We need to be ready to deal with it the next time that it happens.