Save this guide on how to moderate a panel discussion

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By Mark Schaefer

I’ve been asked to moderate many corporate and conference panels over the years and I’ve become pretty good at it. So I thought I would pass along some of the things I’ve learned from my experiences.

Save this post so you’ll be ready when it’s your time to take the stage!

1. Don’t worry about a preparation call

This may seem like strange advice since I am always a well-prepared person. Look, we are all so busy. Nobody really likes prep calls and I don’t believe they’re needed. Everybody on the panel will be happier if the experience is user-friendly and stress-free. Even if the conference requires a pre-call, I generally explain that “it will be OK.” And I know that because I …

2. Prepare some “softballs”

My goal for the panelists is to give them balanced “air time” and an opportunity to shine. The best way to do this is to ask the panelists to prepare at least two of their own questions ahead of time. I call these the “softball questions” — nice, easy lobs that the participants can hit out of the park. People are usually pretty good about sending me these questions, especially since this replaces the prep call!

In a typical 60-minute panel, my goal would be to spend about 10 minutes on intro stuff, 20 minutes on the softball questions, 15-20 minutes on other group questions and around 15 minutes of audience questions.

3. Learn about the audience and the panelists

If you’re unfamiliar with the audience, do some research on the burning questions in their industry. Study the LinkedIn profiles of the participants to look for opportunities to align experiences with industry questions.

It’s ideal to meet the panelists informally ahead of time at the event to break the ice and maybe tease out a few possible stories and opinions ahead of time. I make sure there are no surprises and let them know about the questions I am thinking about. Ask the panelists explicitly beforehand if there are any hot topics to avoid.

4. Manage the clock

The meeting organizer expects two things from the moderator: Create interesting content and finish on time. Generally you will have panelists who are respectful and aware of the clock, but sometimes people might be overly talkative or quiet.

Having a domineering, self-involved person is one of the most difficult situations for a panel moderator because it is awkward to interrupt a person in front of an audience.  Couple of tips: 1) break eye contact with the person; 2) make sure the person sees you look at your watch. When I know ahead of time that somebody is domineering, I ask for assistance from the other participants in helping me control the air time.

On a rare occasion I will interrupt because ultimately it’s my responsibility to keep it together. I might turn to another person and say “Tom, it looks like you have something you want to contribute to this topic.”

When somebody is a little shy, I actively bring them into the conversation. I might ask them to comment after somebody else has answered a question, or ask them to tell a related story from their career.

5. Add humor

The most tense moment of a panel is usually the opening few moments. The panelists are in an unfamiliar environment. They could be nervous or hung over. The audience is hoping they’ve made the right decision in attending your talk. The organizers want it to go well. I find that adding a little humor in the opening comments is absolute gold. It loosens everybody up immediately and lets the audience know they’re in for a good time.

6. Plant questions

Many conference planners want you to leave time for questions. This can be awkward, especially if there are no questions!

Before the panel begins, I’ll usually take somebody in the audience aside and provide them with a relevant question for the audience Q&A time. I’ll explain that I might need them to prime the pump … usually others chime in once the first question comes through.

7. Involve the audience

I try to look for little opportunities to get the audience involved, even if it’s something small like asking for a show of hands on a question. Remember that even if the audience is really into your topic, their minds are wandering back to the pile of work waiting for them or maybe a problem at home. So try to plant a few interventions in the content every 10 minutes or so to bring their minds back into the room.

8. Encourage sharing

This is such a little thing but it is almost always overlooked. Usually there is a projection screen in conference rooms. During the panel discussion, you should have one slide that has the photos and names of the participants (don’t assume people know who is who!), their Twitter handles, and the conference hashtag. My guess is you will at least triple social sharing if you have that simple information in front of everybody during the whole talk.

9. Handling conflict

Disagreement is great for a panel, a bit of conflict can be entertaining, but an all-out war must be avoided. Usually, you’re going to know enough about the participants and the topics to navigate these waters but in case of a skirmish, keep the panelists focused on the topic, not personality differences. If it devolves into something personal, you must intervene and re-direct the discussion. I have only seen this occur a few times, but it does happen.

10. Stay neutral

Once I was a participant on a very controversial panel and the moderator actually showed bias toward a point of view. I thought this was so unprofessional and disruptive to the panel that I’ll probably avoid that guy in the future.

As moderator, you need to stay in the middle of the road and not show favor to any particular side.

Well there you have it. Any experiences or tips you would like to share in the comment section?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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