Photo by Ed Schipul from the IS Conference in Houston, Texas, 2010, moderated by Maggie McDonald
Maybe you have a panel up for consideration at one of the many conferences out there, maybe someone just asked you to lead a panel, or maybe you are just interested in how people could be crazy enough to take on the job of moderator.
Whatever the reason, you are looking for information, and answers about the art and tricks of moderation, or simply to just survive the experience.
Panels are tricky business, they can be a huge waste of time, or they can be a lively banter of thoughts and information that leave the audience energized and brimming with ideas. The moderator is largely responsible for which experience people have.
And you will rarely get any of the recognition for leading the panel well, though once in awhile someone might recognize your contribution for one of your panels, and this is as it should be.
Over the past two years, though my association with the Houston Social Media Breakfast. I have led over 30 panels and discussions, as well as several more for major conferences. Here are 5 Tips I have learned about how to make your experience as a moderator successful.
1. Recruit Interesting People
Photo Credit: SxSWi 2008 Corporate Blogging Panel moderated by Mack Collier, photo by Jeremiah Owyang
If you are so lucky to also be able to choose the panelists, look for people that bring an interesting perspective to the conversation. Don’t look just for the well known, but also for those with opposing viewpoints or different perspectives on the topic. And look for diversity too, diversity of ideas, backgrounds and demographics. Also, three panelists is perfect, four is a crowd and more than that is a disaster.
Resist the urge to go the easy way and recruit just a handful of your friends or popular people in your field. Of course, you might not have any sway in the panelists, in this case, it is on you to do your homework and find out what each person brings to the game. Visit their websites and social profiles, as well as Googling their name, to see what views they hold on the topic on which the panel will be speaking.
2. Prepare in Advance
Sometimes it is like herding cats, but you should always, always, always prepare with your panel in advance. It can be by phone, but you need to make a roadmap for the conversation that will ensue onstage. It takes a lot of work to get this down and it is wholly the responsibility of the moderator to make sure the panel is prepared. Ask your panel two questions:
What two things are most important (in your mind) for you to share on this topic during the panel?
What would you like to learn from the other panelists and/or from the audience (when questions will be taken) during the panel?
This call is critical. It gives your panelists a chance to get to know each other and hear the other panelists answer this question, and it also helps you to plan the flow. and most important, what the panelists thinks is critical may not be important to the audience. In this call it is your job to act like a journalist, to listen and ask probing questions, then to record the juicy bits, which you will use to formulate your questions. Usually after this call I distribute a list of questions I might ask to the participants. This helps them to feel confident that they are prepared.
3. Slay the Dragons
Whatever your topic, you probably know already that certain parts of it might be controversial, so why not use this to your advantage?
A panel, when done right, is really a storytelling opportunity. You lay out the argument for both sides during the event, letting the audience make up their mind on which side they fall. It’s a bad idea to try to avoid the controversial items. The audience will hate you for doing it and it insults their intelligence.
However, you shouldn’t be controversial to be controversial. Instead, by bringing the issues up yourself, and planning in advance to do so, it makes your panelists look smart and well informed. Even if they don’t agree, the audience will be interested in the panel’s thinking. Slay the Dragon before it breathes fire. It will make your panel more interesting and ensure that the panel and audience don’t riot.
4. Facilitate the Conversation
Remember your place as moderator. The main attraction isn’t you. One thing I love about great moderators is that they know how to turn anything into a question. It is your job as moderator to keep the conversation going, to make sure one panelist isn’t dominating, and to continue to redirect thoughts and questions back to specific panelists.
Usually when the moderator takes over as presenter, it is because they didn’t do their homework on the panelists and don’t really know where to direct a question. It is all about the conversation. That is why talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey or Neal Conan from Talk of the Nation are so good, they know how to get, and keep, people talking. I also learned a ton on how to do this from learning how to moderate a focus group.
You should also avoid PowerPoint if at all possible. A panel is already cluttered and nothing is more deadly than four mini PowerPoint presentations followed by a lackluster discussion. If you must have a visual, make them bold and few. You could put up a slide with the social profiles (name, title, company, Twitter handle, if you like).
5. Stay in Control
If you hang out in social media circles, you might believe that trying to control the conversation is a bad idea. However, the opposite is true of the panel.
As a moderator, it is your job to take and keep control of the conversation. Something I learned from my business partner, and talented presenter, Beth Kanter, is to never let go of the mic.
This does not mean that as a moderator you should be the center of information. You should keep tabs on the panel, look for audience input at the right moments and otherwise keep the conversation lively. It is a bit of an art, but mostly remember that you are more of a mirror as a moderator, you are reflecting to get your panel members to reveal the right information at the right time.
Always tell your panel ahead of time, just before you go on, that you will interrupt them if necessary, and that they shouldn’t take it personally.
Some better moderators in the social media communications space that I have worked with and seen include Shel Holtz and Eric Shwartzman. Who are your favorite moderators?
Have you served as a moderator? What have you learned? Do you have any specific questions or thoughts?
The comments are yours.