Moderating a Panel Discussion Well

Moderating a Panel Discussion Well

You’re not the star of the show

One of the most important things to realise about the role of a moderator is how critical this person is to the success of the session. A moderator is not the star of the show – her role is to help others shine and bring the whole session together seamlessly.

I like to think of it as a show because while there are things to discuss and learn, the element of entertainment and to some degree, excitement, is important in retaining the audience’s interest. This can come from the topic itself or the guest panellists. The stars, therefore, are the panellists.

If you find yourself invited to moderate a panel discussion anytime soon, you may find some of these tips useful. They are as applicable to hosting conference panel sessions as they are to intimate breakfast meetings and round-table discussions with parties from different organisations, industries or backgrounds.

Maintaining a balance between sharing a viewpoint and hogging the limelight

Your task, as a moderator, is a tough one.

You need to maintain an equilibrium of viewpoints and ensure that all guests are given enough airtime. You also want to manage the pace of the session. Since you are not doing much of the talking, the panellists themselves affect the pace. Your ability to change the pace is through your questioning of the guests, how often you interject and how you move between the guests. Sometimes, guests will be-labour a point – you will need to keep it brief by cutting in either to clarify, ask a question or redirect to someone else.

Introductions and setting the scene

There are a number of things you can do early on to help you do a great job.

The first of which involves introductions. Once the organisers have informed you of the details of the session and your expected role, they should also introduce you to the other panellists either in person over a coffee or via email.

Once you’ve been introduced, see if you can obtain further background information on these panellists either through the profile information that the organisers will use to market the session or through their individual LinkedIn profiles. If they have individual websites, go take a look to find out more about them. The time you spend reviewing this information helps you get a sense of the person as well as their values and interests, which helps set everything they do in context.

Connect with each panellist individually. If you can manage this, find the time to meet before the session, even if it is only for a short while. If that is not possible, you could also have a short phone call or finally, exchange messages via email.

Once you’ve done this, communicate with all jointly via email to introduce everyone to each other and use this time to set the scene and provide any guidelines to the panellists.

Setting the scene means not assuming anything about your panellists or the event and providing all relevant information so that every panellist understands the overall objectives of the session set against the conference/meeting agenda, your role and contribution and what is expected of them. It helps makes everything clear. It also means you can tell them how you intend to run your session, what you feel each should do and how you will manage the task of moving between people and topics. That way, when you do interrupt or change the topic midway through, these panellists will be a lot more understanding.

Understand your primary role

If you are a subject-matter expert on the topic for discussion, there is a danger that you may want to air your views. But as a moderator, you’ve been called, not so much to share your opinions as to moderate.  That said, there is value in you sharing a brief commentary, re-articulating or summarising what the panellists have said and posing great questions that get everyone thinking.

Preparation is key.

This can best be achieved through the following:-

Understand the subject matter for discussion
A moderator need not know the A-Z on the subject matter. However, awareness of some of the fundamental issues at play is useful. Familiarise yourself with the subject matter, known subject-matter experts, controversial topics and current trends. Come to terms with the information you have discovered and come up with your own questions.

Get familiar with the panellists called upon for the discussion
Familiarise yourself with their profile and conduct some basic research online to see what they have aired their views on.

Acquaint yourself with the event details
It may seem too obvious but the small things matter. Being sure about the venue location will prevent unnecessary trouble on the day. Arriving early ensures you start with a good impression and gives you time to assess the audience. You will also have the opportunity to meet your guest panellists and iron out any last-minute issues.Being early also allows you time to take note of the logistical details.

  • Where the session happen? This is especially important for conferences when some of these are concurrent break-out sessions;
  • How much time will be allotted to the session and is this a strict requirement? You need to know how the organisers are running their event.
  • What are the seating arrangements for the session like?
  • Will there be a stage?
  • What kind of seating will be provided – sofa chairs or high stools?
  • Will audio visual equipment be provided?
  • Will you allow the use of slides or not?
  • Will water be provided?
  • How many microphones will be provided?
  • How will questions be handled – at the end of the session or as they come?

All these little things make a big difference. Like the nagging pain caused by a tiny pebble in the corner of your shoe that you cannot remove, it can be seriously uncomfortable when you make assumptions about things you ought to check instead.

Have lots of questions
A moderated panel session comprises a set of questions and answers. Personally, I find it better to be prepared with more questions than necessary. The reality though is that you will go through fewer questions if you are able to successfully get everyone on the panel to contribute to the discussion. Issues take time to air, people need time to warm up. They also sometimes have agendas at play which means they will find a way to get whatever they want to say out there, regardless of context or timing.

A Q&A style session gives you more control over the session, enabling you to quickly move between people and topics.I’ve seen panel sessions which are more of mini-presentations, which I am not in favour of. This involves giving each panellist a set time (it may range between 5 – 15 minutes each) to deliver a short talk. They take turns to present and it seems long and in effect, is a monologue. It gets worse if a panellist decides that she wants to put slides up during their session. It risks running out of time and off topic and therefore, much harder to moderate.

Be prepared that you will run out of time
Any presentation, whether individual or group-led, takes time to develop. This means people have to warm up to the task ahead, the discussion starts slowly and then begins to get deeper. At times, people may veer off topic as well or take more time to explore an idea. Some topics may get members of the audience suddenly sharing feedback or posing questions. In such a dynamic environment, it’s easy to lose track of time.

As a moderator, time is of the essence and you must guard it like a hawk. You should have a handle on the flow of the session which means making decisions as to which questions to leave out, who to cut into, how to speed certain sections up etc.

Have a time-keeper present
The best piece of advice about moderating panels I received was from my dad who mentioned the importance of a time-keeper. You need a timer which is loud enough for everyone to hear. It needs to be managed by someone other than yourself.

The timer functions in three ways. First, it tells the panellists clearly when it is time to wrap up and then, when to stop talking completely. Use the timer both as a warning of session end and then at session end. Second, it helps you do your job. You focus on the things that matter – running the show, tracking comments made and jotting down new questions.  Third, it shows the audience you respect their time. A good moderator does her job well to complete her session as close to the desired timeframe allocated simply because delay has consequences on the rest of the conference or event proceedings. Today, when most feel that time is the scarcest of commodities, managing time well is the minimum we should accord to all concerned.

These are just a few tips I have put together from all the sessions I have either run or participated in. I’d love to hear any ideas you have on moderating a panel discussion. Feel free to either message me or leave a comment in the comment section below.
#moderating #panelsession #communication #dialogue #conference

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