How to Moderate a Panel (aka How Not to Eff It Up Too Much)

Sunday, October 29, 2017 / 11:00 AM

Moderating a panel is stressful. That's just a fact. When you're the one responsible for steering the ship, it requires preparation, even if the topic is one you're very familiar with. So far this year, I've moderated about a half dozen panels and most of them with anywhere from 2 to 4 panelists.

That's a lot of people to talk to in 45 minutes about a wide range of topics.

So what makes for a successful panel? I've learned the hard way (by messing up) and the easy way (by being on panels with great moderators), and I've got at least one more panel to moderate before the year's end, so here are some tips and tricks that might help you through moderating your next panel:

1. Research your panelists.
Often times, panel organizers will provide you with bios, but even if that's the case, do your own research too. Look at their social media accounts, dig back through their YouTube videos, read other interviews they may or may not have done. It's OK if you aren't 100% familiar with someone on your panel, but by the time you get to the day of the panel, you should be able to talk about this person as if they're an actual friend.

And then practice introducing the panelists. I always recite bios of people in my head while I'm getting ready for my day – making coffee, doing my makeup, etc. – so that if I'm the one introducing them before the panel kicks off, I'm not just relying on them to tell the audience who they are. A good moderator should be able to make that introduction.

2. Print out notes (but also have them on your phone).
I never rely on one version of any notes I have. Too often I've left physical copies in a different bag or in my hotel room, or my phone has failed and I can't get reception to download the latest copy I dropped into Google Drive.

Make sure everything is one sheet, keep the printed copy with you the entire day so you don't lose it, and then either screenshot/photograph it on your phone, or have all of your notes in the Notes app.

And then put your phone on airplane mode!!!

I don't like looking my phone if I can help it during a panel. My go-to is a physical copy, but the phone is a good backup (and one I've used at least once this year). Also, always have a pen on hand in case you want to jot down a question that comes up in your brain or to remind yourself of a point to return to while someone is talking.

3. Individualize questions.
Coming up with questions for a panel can be the most difficult part. If you've got a good panel organizer, they'll give you explicit instructions on the themes or direction of the panel along with suggested questions, but it's up to you as a moderator to decide on the final questions that get asked.

Here's what not to do: Don't come up with a list of questions that you plan to "round robin" it with the entire panel. That's not interesting, I'm sorry. You want to be able to ask each person at least one question that's specific to them and their work/life/experience. Asking one question and then just letting each person answer it is not going to yield a real conversation. And that's what you want a panel to be: a conversation. You want the panelists to listen deeply to one another and ask questions themselves if the moment arises.

There's also going to be panels where all of your panelists might not be in the same industry (and even if they are, they're still going to have different experiences). For example, one of my favorite panels I moderated this year included two actors, one network executive, and one nonprofit leader. The panel as a whole was about representation and diversity, so it was pretty broad – and not to pat myself on the back too much, but I think I did a pretty good job connecting the need to raise your voice in politics to raising your voice in Hollywood. (At least, that's what everyone who came up to me after the panel noted.)

If your 45-minute panel feels like an hour after 15 minutes, find a way to liven it up. Always have at least one or two questions that are the "obvious" questions (after all, you don't want your entire panel to be "obvious" questions), the ones that you know the panelists have answered a million times and probably have a canned answer for. But that might make them feel more comfortable and help them to open up.

Finally, when asking questions, jump around the panel. Don't just cycle through everyone in the same order. Mix it up. Be ready with the follow up. Encourage the panelists to talk and joke with each other.

4. Don't make it about you.
You are the moderator. Even if you have a relevant experience to something the panelists are saying, only use that as a 5 second transition. Don't answer your own questions! I've seen so many panels where the moderator acts like a panelist and, let's be real, most of the time, the audience is showing up because of the panelists. That's why they're booked! If you're going to a panel with two actors and me, you're probably there for the actors – I know I would be.

Case study: once I attended a panel with a journalist as a moderator and two authors on the panel. I heard more from the journalist and what he thought about the authors' work than what the authors wanted to say about their work.

As a moderator, if someone tries to turn a question to you (whether it's another panelist or during the dreaded Q&A portion, which I'll get to below), don't avoid it, but be brief. Again: this isn't about you. You're there to moderate a conversation, not take over it.

5. Put a hard limit on the Q&A.
Nobody loves Q&A. Even people who like Q&A could usually do without it, I've found. Usually, the Q&A portion ends up dominated by people who simply share their thoughts or want to talk about their own experiences or how a panelist affected them personally. And I don't want to diminish those people, but that's not always the greatest use of an audience Q&A section. As a moderator, Q&A can be the hardest thing to moderate because you can't control what someone is going to say.

Last year, for instance, I moderated a panel that included Q&A where the second question was someone who immediately took on an accusing tone. He was angry about something and it turned into a very specific rant. I didn't want to cut him off because that probably wouldn't have gone over well, so instead of leaving the panelists to handle the question/rant (and they were giving me "deer in the headlights" looks), I stepped in and thanked him for his thoughts and offered to talk with him after.

Honestly, sometimes the moderator also has to take one for the team.

But back to Q&A: if your panel has a Q&A portion at the end, keep a hard limit. Up front, say you're only going to take x-number of questions and then state initial guidelines (kindly, but seriously): "Say your name and then ask your question. But please keep in mind that we're not looking for comments or for your stories, as much as we love them. But we want to make sure this is fair to everyone who has a question they want to ask our panelists."

6. Wear something with pockets.
Sometimes you're going to have a lav mic and you won't expect it. Here's a pro tip: always expect one. A handheld mic or a standing mic won't always be the standard (that is, if audio is necessary; sometimes you'll be in a smaller room that won't require a mic at all). With a lav mic, there's normally a pack that goes along with it, and if you don't have pockets or something to clip that pack onto, you're left with it either in your lap, or tucked into your seat, which then you're charge of not ruining or breaking somehow. Once I wore a dress with nothing to clip that pack onto and the chairs for the panel were director's chairs, so I had this pack in my lap the whole time and the photos from the panel were...not great.

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