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As you rise in your career and your visibility grows, you’ll likely be called upon to participate in a panel discussion. It’s a powerful way to share your ideas and become recognized in your field, but there’s no question that preparing to speak on a panel can be stressful — you have to figure out what to say, practice being concise, and worry about overlapping with your colleagues.
It’s even more fraught, however, when you’ve been asked to moderate one.
Now you have to bring order to an unwieldy group of strangers and somehow unify their disparate perspectives into a meaningful conversation. As a professional speaker, I give more than 50 talks at companies and conferences each year, participating in everything from keynotes to panels. Here are four strategies I’ve developed to ensure that when I’m moderating, I create the conditions for an insightful exchange.
First, it’s important to prepare your panelists in advance for what to expect. At one recent conference where I was a panelist, my moderator didn’t contact me until the morning of our session. “Unfortunately I couldn’t find your email address in my mailbox,” he wrote me, “and I couldn’t obtain it from the [conference organizers]. They’ve been a bit overwhelmed I guess these last few days. But [fellow panelist] gave it to me this morning and so here is the outline. Let me know if it works and see you later today!”
I’m comfortable improvising onstage, so this wasn’t a problem for me; but for any panelist who might want to prepare before giving a presentation, this would have been panic-inducing. It doesn’t take much to get on the same page with your panelists — one pre-event conference call, a couple of emails asking for their thoughts on the topic, or even sharing your draft questions in advance should suffice. But forcing your panelists to go into the event blind, with only a couple of hours to prepare, is frankly a dereliction of moderator duty.
Second, realize that your sole mission is to ensure a great audience experience. As moderator, one of the hardest — and most frequent — challenges you’ll face is whether to cut off long-winded panelists, and how to do it tactfully. It’s awkward to interrupt someone, especially if that person has stature in your field, and you may naturally worry about offending them. But it has to be done.
The moderator’s sacred responsibility is not to assuage panelists’ egos; it’s to stand as an advocate for the audience, asking the questions they wish they could and ensuring a thoughtful discussion. You want to keep the panel from turning into a platform for someone’s bloviation. If the event organizers had wanted that person to monologue, they would have given them a keynote. Instead, they put them on a panel in order to get their perspective as part of a group conversation, and you’ve been chosen to uphold that intention.
If you’re wondering whether someone is droning on too long, the audience probably thinks they are. It’s crucial to remember that the audience will be rooting for you to stop the soliloquy. I’ve discovered one way to help the verbose panelist save face: cut them off with a positive statement. You can capture their attention by simultaneously making a hand gesture and breaking in verbally, and say something like, “That’s a great point, Joe, and I’d love to hear how Preeti would respond to that.” Cutting them off is a far better alternative than simply sitting there and looking uncomfortable, or making half-hearted attempts to catch the offending panelist’s eye.
Third, don’t be afraid to wield the power you’ve been given. Too many panel moderators seem uncomfortable with the responsibility they’ve been given and take a hands-off approach to the session. For example, they’ll “toss out” questions to the entire panel, without specifying who should respond, resulting in awkward silences, as people try to figure out who should go first — or complete chaos, as the most aggressive panelist dominates the conversation. Maybe the moderator does specify a speaking order, but it’s the rote mechanics of Panelist A, then Panelist B, then Panelist C — the predictability of which will bore the audience by the second round.
Instead, direct your questions to the person who will have the most relevant answers. That means, of course, that it’s important to research the panelists in advance to know enough about which topics are in their wheelhouse. If Panelist A says something incendiary about tech founders, and Panelist C launched a startup last year, don’t wait for Panelist B to respond just because it’s his “turn.” Instead, follow the action and direct the conversation appropriately.
Of course, you want to be fair as moderator and not allow one person to dominate at the expense of other voices. But fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal: if Panelist C gets five questions and everyone else answers three, that’s not the end of the world if that panelist is especially interesting and adds to the conversation.
Fourth, remember that the moderator needs to embrace the role of interlocutor. When panelists say something interesting, or confusing, you should jump in with a follow-up. “Tell me more,” you could say, or “What do you mean by that?” or “Can you explain that in more detail?” That enables the conversation to go deeper, away from the panelists’ typical talking points and into more fruitful territory.
Moderating a panel can be a challenge even for experienced professionals. It’s true that you’re not answering any questions yourself, and you know them all in advance, but there are still unpredictable elements. You have to choreograph the interaction of multiple opinionated leaders, keep everyone on topic, and probe for deeper insights. If you take the steps above to proactively craft a great experience — rather than sitting back and hoping it will take care of itself — you’ll set yourself apart as a uniquely thoughtful moderator.