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MAY 23, 20176 MIN

How To Be A Great Panel Moderator

Ted Carstensen

Ted Carstensen

Platform Director, Heavybit

Few people will tell you this, but the moderator role is about a million times harder than that of the panelist. Moderators have to:

  • Translate panelist stories into actionable advice for the audience;
  • Entertain the audience and keep them engaged by teasing out conflicting POVs and approaches;
  • Be Brief & Paraphrase.

And perhaps most difficult of all, you must expertly do all this in under 10 min of total speaking time since the rest of your time should be spent steering the conversation of your panel and providing value to your audience.

As a moderator, never forget that you’re a puppeteer not a panelist.

Through four DevGuild conferences and countless events in our SoMa Clubhouse, we’ve encountered all varieties of panel moderator. From those experiences we’ve identified several tactics that will help you become a great panel moderator. Let’s get started.

Curate & Translate For Your Audience

Your job is to translate stories, anecdotes and panelist answers into actionable advice for your audience.

Know Your Audience

Before you take the stage, spend time identifying exactly who is going to be in your audience. If you’re moderating a panel at someone else’s event, ask the organizers for job titles and company names of the attendees before you show up. From there, consider what this particular group might hope to learn at this event.

Are they experts, or beginners? It’s a shame to watch a moderator explain simple concepts to a room of experts. And worse to blow by an audience that isn’t as advanced as you.

Ask ‘What If’ Questions

Moderators must push panelists with ‘what if’ questions, taking them beyond rote platitudes or pre-written answers. ‘What if you… had started sooner or later? Had made different hires? Had no customers or data? Had no budget? Were trying to do this today?

A memorable panel is one that leaves the audience feeling they learned something they couldn’t have read on a company’s About Us page.

Entertain & Delight With Value

Break The Fourth Wall

You should feel free to poll the audience. You can ask them about their job titles, whether they feel they’re ahead of or behind the curve in your panel topic, how much budget they control to solve this problem, or if they’re currently looking to hire around this topic etc. You can also call on specific individuals you know to be in the audience if you think they’ll offer additional insight.

Conflict Is Interesting

Call people on their bullshit. Ask them specifically about a controversial technique or campaign, call on specific panelists to offer differing opinions, or stop the conversation completely to ask for clarification and detail.

Tease Out Newsworthiness

There are only a handful of tenets of newsworthiness. We already talked about conflict, but several others include:

  • Celebrity And Brand Recognition: Insider stories about famous people and brands are interesting to audiences. Of course, make sure these stories are still relevant.
  • Timeliness: Did your panelist’s company recently do something big? Announce a fundraising round? Have a great earnings call? Launch a popular new product or feature? Get in a flame war with a competitor on Twitter? Is a well-known outside event affecting their strategy? Should it?
  • Epic Narrative: The more people affected by an event or potentially affected by an event, the more newsworthy it becomes. Is there a story within your panel that connects to larger narratives like the battle around Net Neutrality? General privacy? The entire Industry? Democracy?
  • Uniqueness or Oddity: You can only really tease out one or two oddities or you risk your panel becoming a collection of random thoughts and you’ll lose your audience.

Humanize Your Panelists

  • Insider Stories: Frameworks and ideas aren’t helpful unless they’re grounded in concrete examples or efforts. Sometimes the best stories are the failures or messy early hacks. As moderator, you’re partly responsible for making your panelists comfortable enough to share.
  • Break Eye Contact With Your Panelists. Look at your panel, ask a question, and then look at the audience. This simple gesture helps your panelists to better empathize with the audience and read their energy. It also means panelists can tailor their answers and energy accordingly.

Paraphrase, Cherry Pick, And Redirect

Brief Introductions

Don’t waste your precious stage time listing the complete resumes and work histories of your panelists. Start with:

  • Stated Objectives: Why is this topic important now, and what do you hope to accomplish with this session. Keep this simple and to the point.
  • Brief Intros: 1-2 sentences per panelist will do. Knowing your audience will help you establish your panelists’ expertise quickly, allowing you to get to the meat of the conversation faster.

Respect Your Audience

It’s okay to cut off someone hogging the stage or ask another panelist to intervene and offer their thoughts. You should know when something is too vague or too in the weeds. If someone goes way off track, repeat the actionable points to audience members and move on to your next question. It’s your job to true the course of the conversation, and do it quickly.

Concluding Your Panel

When you’re out of time, list your takeaways while also asking your panelists to highlight their own key takeaways. Allowing your panelists to express something they’ve learned is a great way to drive those concepts home with your audience. Finally, thank your panelists and your audience – after all, the greatest panels rely on participation from everyone in the room.

Are you an experienced panel moderator with something to add? Let us know on Twitter what you’ve learned and we’ll add it to this guide.

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