Dynamic and engaging panels don't happen accidentally, there is always a smart leader behind the curtain who has spent many hours preparing the moderators and the speakers. One of the very best at creating panels that truly connect with the audience is Doug Weaver, President of Upstream Group. We asked Doug to share insightful tips around panel moderation. Thank you Doug. In his words:
If you’ve attended a fair number of professional conferences over the years then no doubt you’ve witnessed your share of really awful panel discussions….and perhaps a handful of gems. Having served as moderator on well over 50 of them across the year – with both winners and stinkers to my credit – I can tell you that the success or failure of a panel depends largely on the moderator. If you’re being asked to moderate a panel – or if you are bringing in a moderator – here are some tips to make yours a success.
Start the conversation in advance: A good moderator is like a good lawyer….there are very few questions he’ll ask in open court that he doesn’t already know the answers to. An up-front phone call with each panelist is the bare minimum that should be done. Even better, dial them all into a conference call. Toss out a couple of initial themes and questions and then invite them to offer others. The more ownership your panelists feel for the event the more they’ll bring at show time. Too many moderators just wing it…to disastrous effect.
Don’t go “Down the Line:" Nothing is more dulling than to have every panelist answer every question. Tell your panelists in advance that you will direct your questions and NOT to feel the need to participate on every question. Ask specific questions to specific panelists then move on quickly. Too much dead air and they’ll jump in and too often be redundant. Which leads directly to…
Avoid “Violent Agreement:” As a means of making sure they each get their share of ‘airtime,’ panelists will step in with ‘Well, I completely agree with Bob and….” This eats up valuable time and adds nothing to the what the audience takes away. Instead, step in with your own provocative ‘feeder’ question, like: “Nancy, tell me where your opinion differs from what Bob just said.” This brings contrast and creative conflict to your panel and makes it memorable.
Be the Advocate for the Audience: Your role is not to serve the interests of the panelists; it’s to give the audience their money’s worth. To do so you’ve got to be prepared to break some eggs. If you think an answer was muddled or unclear, ask for clarity. If a panelist doesn’t answer an important question, ask it again. If you’re bored, you can be sure the audience is too. Where the interests of the audience and the panelists are in conflict, act on the part of the audience.
Eyes Front: Many panels end up as closed, clubby discussions that make the audience members feel like voyeurs. There’s an easy fix though: Keep your panelists looking out at the audience. Direct eye contact keeps everyone focused and maintains a level of intensity and interest in the room. Warn your panelists in advance and then do this: After you ask a question and the panelist starts to answer you, simply turn your head and look out at the audience. Your panelist will feel silly talking to the side of your head and will quickly follow suit. As a bonus, this atmosphere is most likely to promote questions later on.
Bring a Point of View: The best moderators bring opinions on the topics at play and then offer them selectively. The panel is not your soapbox, but you’re not a potted plant up there either. As an active, thinking participant in the discussion you become an engine for the discussion. Throw out an outrageous opinion or statement and let your panelists respond to it. Use your knowledge to summarize what you’re hearing and play it back to the audience.
Listen and Be Curious: When you witness a panel that lurches disconnectedly from question to question, it’s often because the moderator simply isn’t listening to what’s going on. If you’re up there, listen intensely to your panelists and what they’re saying. Your curiosity about the topic is the most valuable thing you can bring to the event. Be assertive and ‘work’ the panelists the way a journalist would.
With some focused preparation and awareness of factors like those above, you can be an excellent panel moderator and give both your audience and your panelists a great experience.
Upstream Group works with leading media companies including Disney, Yahoo!, ESPN, Martha Stewart, Amazon, and Facebook to develop effective marketing and communications strategies. Upstream Group also produces the HABITAT Event, an immersive two-day experience for digital sellers to learn proven concepts and strategies to sell smarter.