How to Moderate a Panel that Doesn’t Suck

Recently, I read a post on LinkedIn that declared all panels suck.  The poster had been at a conference and came away with this viewpoint.  However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  When set up right, panel presentations can be a lively and engaging way to get a lot of information out from different viewpoints all at once. And it’s a nice break from endless PowerPoint slides. I’ve been moderating panels for over a decade. Here are my tips on how to moderate a panel that doesn’t suck.

Start with the Right Moderator

The most important factor in making sure your panel is memorable is to select the right moderator.  A moderator isn’t just one of your panelists.  They set the tone, keep the pace and ensure the success of the event. Often you want to select the moderator first, and then they’ll help bring suggestions for good panelists.  A moderator with a rolodex is helpful.  Find an experienced moderator, preferably with knowledge of the subject matter. You can search industry conferences or local associations to see who is listed as a moderator. If you can’t find a strong moderator who is s subject matter expert, consider a TV or radio personality, someone experienced in “interviewing” others for a living.

Select a Strong, Diverse Panel

Once you have someone to moderate a panel, you will need to find 3 to 5 panelists.  I typically recommend recruiting at least one more panelist than you need because schedules change, and the more important your panelists, the more likely they are to have a sudden conflict.  Any fewer than 3 panelists and you lose the dynamic. However, more than 6 and not everyone will have a chance to speak. Pick panelists who are reasonably well recognized in their field.  But more important, pick ones who are talkative and willing to be controversial or take an opposing stand. Select for some diversity of experience or background so they cover the spectrum of conversation and won’t just repeat what the others said. Send

Hold a Prep Call

Scheduling a 30 to 45 minute prep call the week before the event is absolutely critical.  This is what makes or breaks your panel.  Use doodle or a similar calendar tool to find a common time and set up a dial in number.  Introduce your panelists to one another and give them a short list of questions that will be asked. Lay out the goals and the ground rules. This gives panelists a chance to prepare stats or research the topic further.  Ideally, you want the moderator to lead this call, so meet with them first to agree on the general direction.  Then have the moderator lead the prep call and find deeper areas of specialization, or areas where some differing viewpoints might be brought to light.  The prep call also ensures that the moderator knows how to draw out each panelist so they all get a chance to shine.

This is Infotainment, People

Yes, you are there to entertain.  If the panel doesn’t bring their points across in memorable way, using stories, and useful stats, then the audience will be running for the exists in no time.  Your mission is to ensure that your panel shares their special knowledge with the audience. But the more fun you can make it, the more memorable it will be.

Involve the Audience

It’s helpful to engage the audience. If it’s a small, audience, have everyone give a 30 second introduction. Otherwise, have the moderator ask some poll questions to get a good idea of the makeup of the audience. If possible, let the audience ask questions throughout. Don’t let them take over or grandstand.  This is where an experienced moderator will help maintain control and keep the conversation on topic.

Now you have all the secrets for how to moderate a panel that doesn’t suck. Your audience will thank you.

Author, Kathleen Glass, Oinkodomeo. Kathleen has led panels for numerous local organizations including MITEF San Diego, CyberTECH, Hera Venture Summit, San Diego Startup Week, and AA-ISP as well as moderated and been a panelist for national conferences and seminars.