Master Moderator: Run A Panel Like A Pro

Speaking opportunities are a time-tested way to position oneself as an expert. Speaking engagements are often gateways to connecting with prospective clients, strategic partners and referral sources. Being showcased as the keynote speaker is the most coveted role at the conference, but an invitation to join a panel is highly desirable as well. Should you be asked to moderate, you may work with the conference organizer to select the panel speakers.

When considering speakers, remember that the goal of every panel discussion is to bring together three to five smart and witty people to have a dynamic discussion about an intriguing topic. A group of highly regarded, yet boring, experts will not do. The best panel discussions are lively. The moderator and speakers will enlighten and entertain the audience and draw them into the discussion with questions and comments.

Panel preparation Invite experts who communicate well and have the ability to engage the audience. Research the panelists and their work and let that guide questions that you will ask, in addition to questions on any big developments that the audience will want addressed (like the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act if health care is the topic).

Experienced moderators suggest that you send panelists a group email that lists three questions that you will pose and ask them to suggest other issues/questions that they feel should be addressed as well. At the conference, introduce the panelists to one another and suggest that all of you sit together while whatever meal is served or as the keynote speaker is on, so that everyone can get somewhat acquainted before the panel goes on.

Panel discussion objectives At the start of the panel, thank the audience for attending and introduce yourself. State the title and purpose of the discussion. Three sentences should be sufficient to describe why the topic is relevant to the audience and the community (professional peers or the public).

Introduce the panelists The moderator always introduces the panelist and the introduction should be brief and to the point, letting the audience know why they’ve been invited to discuss the subject. Smart panelists will give you their own introduction for you to read.

Layer the questions A-List moderators know that there is a sequence to follow when posing questions to the panel. The opening question is the “view from 30,000 feet”, an overview that allows panelists to give their perspectives of the big picture regarding the topic. The next couple of questions become more specific, boots on the ground. Once everyone is warmed up, throw in a curve ball with a tough question.

You the moderator are looking to elicit from the panelists concrete examples, war stories, amusing anecdotes, the outrageous truth and provocative or controversial opinions. It’s OK for panelists to pose a question to another, as well. Panelists may ask questions that are sharper and more provocative than those you’ve prepared and the answers may be more candid.

Keep the energy flowing and resist the predictability of going down the line of panelists every time, to allow each to answer your question. If the first three give a similar answer, give another question to the next two, transitioning by saying “The question seems to be answered…” as you pose another to the next panelist(s).

The wrap-up question don’t bother to ask for a closing thought, that’s been done all too often. Instead, ask panelists what they think might be an important trend that we’ll be talking about next year at this time, or to make some counterintuitive out-of-the-box prediction about what the industry will look like in five years.

Audience questions To the best of your ability, allow 5 – 7 minutes for audience questions. Following the audience questions, give a brief closing wrap-up and thank the audience for their attendance and participation.

End on time The panel discussion will likely be 45 – 60 minutes long and it is the responsibility of the moderator to facilitate an engaging and informative discussion that makes the panelists (and you) look good by posing questions that will quickly get the relevant information onto the table and make the audience value the experience. Make the organizer happy by staying on schedule. Ask the organizer for 10 minute and 5 minute warning signs.

Thanks for reading,