How to organize and moderate a panel that creates real value for your audience (Part 1 of 2)

September 3, 2009 by Jared Goralnick

Moderating "Presenting Straight to the Brain" at SXSWi 2008 We’ve all been to events where the panel was a waste of our time.  It’s because it’s not as easy as “get people on it and then ask them to talk.”  It takes preparation.

But it doesn’t take that much preparation.  Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last half dozen or so panels I’ve organized/moderated.  And I’d love to hear what’s worked for you…

So, let’s assume you’re tasked with putting together and moderating a panel.  Or maybe just organizing, or just moderating.  Either way, the steps below apply (or at least they’ve worked for me).  But before we get any further, let’s be 100% clear: this panel is first about your audience, second about your panelists, and NOT about you.

Aaron Brazell, getting ready to make a wry comment at Bootstrap MarylandOnce you get your head around that and realize your job is to shut up as much as possible and try to keep everyone happy, you’ll understand the key to panels (as well as meetings, dinner parties, being a connector, and generally being a decent human being).

Don’t mind @Technosailor Aaron Brazell here on the right, even he knows when to keep quiet on a panel.

Step 1: Choosing Panelists

You think I was just kidding around when I said all that stuff in parentheses, but I wasn’t.  I’m of the opinion that dinner parties, panels, and business relationships are about connecting the dots, not just showing up.  In other words, I’d rather put together a panel that brings together perspectives from people who might not normally get to sit together.  It will provide a unique opportunity for your audience and it’ll provide additional incentive for your panelists (i.e., an opportunity to meet other thought leaders).  (Matter of fact, when I do dinner parties, I often get 12 people together who don’t know each other.  I’m weird like that.)

For example, for SXSW this past year I had the rewarding experience of connecting three people who had heard of but never met one another: Craig Ball (the god of presenting evidence in the courtroom), Kathy Sierra (the goddess of presentations when it comes to the geek community), and Cliff Atkinson (the god of PowerPoint, or at least the author of Beyond Bullet Points).  They were people who belonged on a panel about presentations, but it took an organizer (me!) to bring them together.  With the three of them there, I was able to get out of the way…

Okay, you get that.  Now here are some general tips for choosing panelists:

  1. Ask yourself whether you’re looking primarily to educate or provide differing perspective.  If you’re looking to educate, you probably want people who have somewhat similar opinions on the topic at hand.  (People saying very different things make it very difficult for your audience to take action.)  Don’t worry, every panel will have some different opinions, but if the audience doesn’t know much about the topic then you want to make sure the panelists’ message is somewhat consistent.  However, if you’re talking to an expert audience, particularly if you’re looking for controversy, then differing opinions are the way to go.  There will always be education and disagreements, but as an organizer it’s important to decide how much of that you want before you select your panelists.
  2. Diversity is important.  But choose your diversity wisely as you can’t meet all metrics for diversity.  For instance, when I ran an event with mostly students and 20-somethings (Bootstrap Maryland), nearly every panelist was under 40, and most were in their 20s.  I wanted the young audience to empathize with the panelists first and foremost.  I also tried to have both genders on all the panels both because I believe they may have had different ways that they arrived at their successes, and because I wanted both men and women in the audience to empathize.  You may want to have a mixture of people that are younger and older, more experienced and newer to success (and thus more familiar with today’s challenges), women and men, racially diverse, techie and business-y, creative and analytic, etc.    Diversity is important, but choose your metrics before you factor it in.
  3. People who have turned down my panel invitations... Feel free to invite people you’ve never met.  If you don’t know the best person for the session, find them—everyone will win from this.  Aim high.
  4. Decide how active a moderator you’re going to be, as this will factor in on the number of panelists you choose.  I tend to be fairly quiet when we’re on topic and tend to talk more when we get off topic.  But generally I try to be in control without taking too much time.  Some moderators use their role as an opportunity to push tough questions.  Some spend a fair bit of time on context for questions and clarifying responses.  But only failed moderators talk as much as their panelists.  And it ruins things (particularly the energy level in the room).  Still, if you’re planning to be particularly active, you should have fewer panelists.
  5. The ideal number of panelists is 3 or 4.  Fewer means it’s an interview or debate, and more means people won’t get enough opportunity to share their ideas.  If you have more people you’ll need more structure as it will become increasingly difficult to moderate a bunch of people with ideas to share.

Step 2. Contacting Panelists

Once you have your ideal group listed out, you need to reach out.  While this should be less error-prone than choosing the panelists, you still want to do this right:

  1. Don’t contact all your panelists at once, go one at a time.  It takes more time this way but it lets you control the total number of panelists and better control the diversity (for instance, if you invite 3 business owners and 3 consultants and none of the business owners are available but all the consultants are, you now have a very different panel than if you had gone one at a time)
  2. While it’s ideal when you can tell each panelist that you’ve secured the other panelists, you can at least use the names of the people you’re hoping to invite as an incentive (i.e., social proof) 
  3. You’re allowed to ask for advice from a panelist (even one who isn’t available to participate).  i.e., “you’re my first choice for this panel, and there will be be at least 150 people who show up, but before I invite anyone else, I welcome your suggestions for additional panelists as I imagine you’ve done similar panels in the past” or “since you’re not available, I’m just curious if there’s anyone you’d recommend…clearly you have more experience with this topic than I do”
  4. Just be sure you reference a professional panel from your recent past. If you don’t know the person, reference a previous panel you’ve assembled.  It’s okay to make yourself look good, at least a little—as you are in fact selling them on an idea and you need to make them feel like it’ll be an opportunity for success.  Just try to make sure the panel is recent/relevant…
  5. Give a deadline to hear back.  Put it in the subject of your email, along with the date of the presentation.  “Participating in a panel on the future of chocolate chip cookies on Oct 8 (need to know by Friday).”   A lot of people don’t read the details and thus will miss out on the opportunity while it’s still available—so make it easy for them to understand your expectations on a response

I’ve done my best to keep this advice thorough, but I want you to have time to think this over.  Let me know your thoughts on the first two steps, and next week I’ll share the last 2-3 steps: how to choose a panel format, how to get the panelists on the same page, and general tips for moderating.

If you liked this article, you can be assured my SXSW panel this year is going to rock.  Would you mind thumb-up’ing it here by end of day Friday -it takes 60 seconds.  Pretty please!

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4 Responses to “How to organize and moderate a panel that creates real value for your audience (Part 1 of 2)”

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  1. Alexis

    Excellent and very useful post Jared. Wish I had it earlier ;) Look forward to part 2!

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Alexis! You’ll have many opportunities to put together and moderate panels in the future…I’m sure of it : )

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