Moderating A Panel

You need several skills to moderate a panel discussion. Do you have what it takes?


When I was a technologist at Mentor, I used to be asked to sit on panels. I loved to provide my opinions on just about anything. As soon as I became independent, the industry believed that I could serve it better as a moderator. That was not an easy transition to make. The first few panels that I moderated were probably not very good. I like to think that I have improved over the years, and the fact that people still ask me says a lot.

Over the course of the past year, and several conferences, I have realized how many people struggle with this role. This results in panels without structure, panels that do not sound authentic, and panels where you go away disappointed because, as an audience member, you feel that it failed to answer the questions that you had.

In this blog, I am going to share some of the lessons that I have learned. I hope these are helpful to people just getting started with their first few panels and I hope other people will add their experiences and suggestions.

You are NOT a panelist
This is probably one of the most common mistakes that I see. The moderator believes that they have a right to insert their viewpoint into the discussion. The role of the moderator is to be neutral and to allow the panelists to express their views. As a moderator you can tease those views out of them, but you should not be inserting your own. You should also not be trying to make it look as if you know more than they do. In both cases, it is allowing your own ego to get in the way.

Do prepare, but not too much
If you go into a panel with no preparation, you will most likely mess it up. In a recent panel, the moderator mispronounced a panelist’s name, company and product. Not acceptable. If you feel that you cannot get these things right, then you should allow the panelists to introduce themselves, but I consider that bad form as well. That also brings us to biographies. Most of the ones you will be given are suitable for a paper or resume, but not for a panel introduction. Condense it. This also means that you can do better time management.

On the other hand, too much preparation will show. If the panelists have been given the questions ahead of time, they will have prepared answers and what will result will not be a discussion, but a set of marketing pitches. Often, you will be asked to moderate a panel for a company, and they may give you a set of questions. Rewrite them—first in your own voice, but also in a way that changes the focus slightly. The panelist will still have thought through the subject but will not provide rote answers.

Introductory remarks
If you are asked to make some opening statements—prepare. What I find helps is to actually write out a speech, but then make bullet points from it and keep those with me. That ensures that I keep on track, do not miss out important elements and have a coherent message. Do not read from a script.

What about panelists’ opening remarks? These can be a moderator’s nightmare. If the panel structure is going to have opening statements with slides, I insist on two things. The first is that I receive any materials ahead of time. That way I can integrate them into a single slide deck. There is nothing worse than having every panelist fiddle around with their laptop, finding they don’t have the right adapter, or some other technical issue. It also makes sure that they are prepared, and you can see how many slides they have and can keep track of their time progress.

If you have budgeted five minutes for a panelist presentation, tell them they have three. It is likely they will be a little nervous and that tends to lead them to talk around a subject a little more. Also prepare them that if they do go significantly over time, you will cut them off. Do it tactfully, but firmly. If they understand this, they will ensure that they get their message out in the time allowed.

Handling panelists and audience
An extension of this is handling the panelists and the audience. Your role as a moderator is to give all of the panelists the ability to shine. Sometimes, they just don’t, but that should be their fault—not yours. Make sure they all get the opportunity to participate in the discussion. Sometimes there will be a panelist who is more timid than the others. Direct questions to them, create moments in the discussion where they can get in, even if it means pausing the more aggressive panelists.

You also have to handle the audience. You have to remain in control of the panel, and audience questions is where it can easily go off track. I like to exert my “power” by telling them to announce their name and affiliation when they get the microphone. This stops them from being anonymous. If they don’t, I stop them and make sure that they cannot proceed until they have done that. If they decide to give a long soliloquy, ask them if they are getting to a question. If the question is divisive or rude, dismiss it or ask if any of the panelists want to respond, but do that in a way that they can sit back and ignore it.

Panel structure
This brings us on to another important element. The panel is there for the audience. Not the moderator, not the panelists, not the organizer—the audience. They need to know how the panel is going to be structured. Will they get a chance to ask questions? When? What are they going to get from the panel? I have moderated panels in the past where I did not make this clear. The audience did not know they were allowed to ask questions. I went through the whole panel asking all of the questions. Afterwards people said to me that they were surprised I hadn’t opened it up but weren’t too concerned because I asked all of the questions that they had. This was a big mistake on my part. I now state that clearly at the beginning and soon after my first question to the panelists.

Your goal is to create a discussion that is helpful and informative for the audience. The operative word here is discussion. It is not the moderator asking a question and each of the panelists in turn providing their answer. That gets boring very quickly. Maybe for the first question you may want to do that, especially if that sets the context for each of the panelists. Many people confuse discussion with conflict. They think a panel needs conflict, but it doesn’t. There are always differences in background that can be brought out in a panel. It might be in the types of devices they are creating, or the market segment they are in, or a different way in which cost relates to the decisions they have to make.

What would you add to this list of advice?

Leave a Reply

(Note: This name will be displayed publicly)