How to moderate a panel

paneldisI’ve been on panels, I’ve moderated some and I’ve witnessed many more. One thing I have learnt over time is that unless you are Chris Anderson, you need to do your prep. Too many panels go south purely because the speakers are unprepared, haven’t put in the required hours, hog the limelight or just don’t answer the question asked. If people are taking time out to listen to you, it is only right to do your bit to make it worth their time. A survey from 2014 not only called panels a ‘lazy format’ but also re-emphasized the important of skilled moderators in a panel discussion.

While I’m not the expert on this, I have picked up a few useful to-do’s over the years:

  1. Put in the work: The job of the moderator is to make life simple for the panelists before the discussion and difficult during. The panelists can’t do their homework unless you do. Deliberate on the topic, come up with a list of questions you propose to ask and share it with the panelists. Ask them to indicate if there are questions that they are uncomfortable asking and if they’d like to include a question to the list. It is also a good idea to have them indicate preferences to questions as it makes it easier for the moderator to decide which question is directed where.
  1. Spark debate: The top reason why panels are ‘boring’ is that everyone is playing it safe. It is easy to say words that are politically correct, widely accepted, largely go unchallenged and well liked. When you see a panel discussion heading that way, challenge the speakers. It took me a long while before I became comfortable doing this. You don’t want to portray your panelist as a fool but you do want them to get uncomfortable in their seats at least once during the discussion. The audience will thank you for it even if the panelists don’t.
  1. Make them laugh: Panel discussions are constructed as much for learning as they are for entertainment. If you believe in this, the audience will walk out with a wide grin and a good experience. This was a monumental learning for me. I was always so focused on delivering value with ‘to the point’ answers that I forgot all about storytelling and humor. Therefore, while I did answer questions, I was the most boring panelist ever. Now I focus as much on humor and narration as I do on ensuring that I’ve answered the question. Rule of thumb – get at least one funny line spoken every 10 minutes. That shouldn’t be so hard.
  1. Share examples: This goes hand in hand with storytelling. Encourage the panelists to add to their inputs with examples that they’ve witnessed. However, they’re not the only ones who can do so. As a moderator, you have the opportunity to pick up from where the panelist left and add your own examples to it. You are as responsible for sharing your worldview as everyone else on the panel.
  1. Be unexpected: The last session I moderated was the best ever not only because there was a fair bit of humor but also because one of the panelists said the most unexpected things ever. I could never predict what he’d say next and who he’d put in a spot. It kept everyone on their toes and listening. It is a valuable experience as a moderator. I got insight into yet another element that builds intrigue and interest. From now on, I aim to introduce my own ‘elements of surprise’.
  1. It is a conversation: Panelists are more likely to forget this than moderators are. A great panel discussion doesn’t need the moderator to step in to direct conversations. It is a natural flow where one panelists gets into conversation with the others on the panel and sometimes with the audience (though rarely). They add to one another’s opinion or choose to disagree and debate. In those moments, a moderator can slip to the background, comfortably lean back and relax. When that doesn’t happen, you need to begin to draw out threads of commonality and divergences and introduce them into the discussion.
  1. Give them something to leave with: There is always something to be learnt from a panel discussion for all parties involved – the audience, the panelists and the moderator. It is easier to remember these nuggets of gold if they are packaged in the form of quirky one lines, takeaway stories or creative phrases. The moderator delivers fantastic value here by collecting these gems over the course of the discussion and packaging them. Paraphrase learnings from the speakers into quirky sentences and maybe for added impact even ask the audience to ‘tweet’ about it. Add some humor into the game.

Panel discussions don’t necessarily have to retain the ‘lazy format’ they are infamous for.  With a little bit of effort, they can shake away this label and turn into an experience that allows everyone to learn from more than one person while having a good time. The tips mentioned here are just some that I’ve learnt over time (often the hard way). I’m curious to hear – are there tips you can add to this bucket?

Psst…I’m curious to see how many moderators at the upcoming SHRM India Annual Conference take my advice. Will you be there?


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