I do a lot of public speaking. I’m sure there are any number of people out there who think they have heard enough from me, but I seem to keep getting invited to speak at events and conferences, so I am not going quietly into the night. As Jimmy Buffett always sings in his live versions of One Particular Harbor, “I can see the day when my hair’s full gray, and I finally disappear….but NOT YET!”
Panels are one of the most common conference formats and I frequently get asked to serve as moderator. Some people think that the moderator is a throw-away role, but to me, the moderator owns the room. If you control who speaks and when and on what topic, you get to set the agenda for the discussion. As a result, I love doing that part as I get to inject my own point of view into every part of the conversation. Since I have performed more than my share of moderator roles, people actually come to me for advice on how to moderate panels. Since I have now been asked for a primer on how best to do this more times than I can recall, I decided to write my advice down and share it here (mainly so I don’t have to keep repeating it). You’re welcome.
Lisa’s Advice for Panel Moderators
First of all, make sure you are happy with the participants on the panel. There is nothing worse than standing up there next to a crew of people who do not make you feel like you’re in good company up there on the stage. Insist on helping to select the participants. or at least refrain from accepting moderator roles when you don’t think the panel participants are worthy of the audience (and you wouldn’t be excited to watch).
A corollary to this is No More Manels. I have stopped agreeing to moderate or participate in panels where there is no gender diversity. Don’t be afraid to bring it up – often times the panel organizer didn’t even realize that they have created a long line for only one particular rest room.
Once you have agreed to moderate, remember: you are the one setting the narrative and you are the one responsible for ensuring the audience is entertained. Yes, I said entertained. I don’t know about you, but I have done some of my best email work during boring panels. If you want to see people looking at you and not at Steve Jobs’ finest contribution to humanity, make sure to spice it up a bit and have some fun.
Beyond that, here are my tips:
- Plan ahead. Do a little research on the topic/people and have a point of view and write your questions out in advance. Even if you don’t use them all at least you have a framework. Share your questions with your panel at least a few days ahead of time but specifically reserve the right to make some up on the spot based on where the conversation takes its natural course. It’s great to ask your panelists to submit questions they want to answer, but do not let any of them turn the panel into a sales pitch. If they go into sales pitch mode while on the panel, use diversionary tactics, like falling over dead, to make your point. Seriously, no one up there who is supposed to be a so-called thought leader should turn themselves into an infomercial.
- Come with a point of view and some data on the topic – You undoubtedly have an opinion on the subject and maybe even some facts you can use to enhance the conversation. Make sure to inject them into the discussion along the way to establish your bona fides on the topic and to reinforce that you are part of the conversation and not just Vanna White. A good technique is to comment on what one of the panelists has just said before you turn it over to the next panelist or question.
- It’s better to have your panelists introduce themselves (give them a strict 1-minute limit each), but ask them to add something fun (What’s your favorite Disney character and why? What did you want to be when you were growing up and what took you off track? If you got to pick it, what would your walk-up music be? (Answer to the last one is Bad to the Bone, obviously). Another option is to ask the panelists the single most interesting thing they have seen or heard at the conference so far. Do not let them say, “Myself.”
- Target specific questions at specific panelists and don’t just go down the line and ask each panelists view on the same question. If you let each and every panelist answer each and every question you end up with the dreaded, ” I agree with what the last person said and now I will repeat it again, nearly verbatim, until the audience falls asleep.” One tactic is to ask the panel, “Does anyone have a different view on that?” and, if no one does, move on because that question has been exhausted. It’s not essential that every panelist gets to make their point on every topic. It is important that each panelist get to speak a similar amount in total, but spread it out.
- Use stories to propel the narrative. Start the panel with a story to draw people in and ask your panelists to comment on it or tell their own. When you prep panelists, tell them to come armed with stories, not just facts. No one asked their mom to tuck them in and read them statistics. People resonate with stories and it makes key points memorable. It’s ok to say, “Do you have an example or can you tell us a story about how that happened?”
- Stir up some controversy – bring up the thing that few ever says out loud and ask for a view on it. Argue a little with your panelists, devil’s advocate style. Don’t be afraid of this – controversy makes for a much better panel. Remember, you are there to educate and entertain. Be polite about it, but don’t be afraid to poke a finger into the strongly held belief of your panelists.
- Diffuse tension with humor – don’t be afraid to make the ironic comment or make a little friendly fun of the panelists or yourself to move the narrative along. When your audience laughs, you know they are paying attention, and everyone relaxes. Relaxed panelists are better, full stop. Uptight panelists are bad panelists, so use humor to loosen everyone up and to keep the audience engaged..
- Have a killer starting question and a killer closing question – something really provocative about the topic that hits hard on the current “big thing” in the field you are covering. If the panel is about venture capital, you could go with, “What was the worst deal you ever made and how did you screw up in selecting it?” If the panel is about medtech, you can go with, “Medtech is dead, right?” If it’s AI (aren’t they all now?), you can say, “So what are your plans for when the robot overlords replace your job with a wired toaster? If digital health, you might try, “On what day of this year will the bubble burst and how much money would you put on that?” It’s always fun to see what you get back when you go right at it. And again,humor is a great way to start as it draws the audience in.
- Watch the audience closely. When panelists get bogged down in details, the audience heads straight for their cell phones (or the door). Don’t be afraid to (politely) interrupt the panelists to get them back on track and out of the weeds. If the audience tunes out, you never get them back! It’s torture to watch hundreds of people check their email when you can’t even check yours.
- Remember: you are in some ways even more important than the panelists. You are the story weaver, the topical air traffic controller and responsible for keeping the attention of the crowd. Thus, you should not be shy about injecting your own thoughts into the conversation. Be one of the experts on the stage. Make comments, state your point of view, don’t be a shrinking violet and don’t fade into the background or minimize your role in the process. If you don’t feel confident enough to comment on the topic, do some research and prepare your self by going to YouTube and finding similar panels to watch or reading a few articles. Be sure to come armed with enough knowledge to help drive the arc of the discussion.
Future moderators, get out there and make me proud!