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

September 11, 2009 by Jared Goralnick

Mike Bonifer at SXSW 2008 Last week I offered advice on selecting and contacting panelists.  Once the panel is formed, most people slack off until the day before the event.

Don’t.  Here’s what to do next to create a great experience for your audience and panelists alike.  Disagree?  Let me know…

If you’re jumping in here, you might want to check out part 1 of this article which has the Step 1 and Step 2… And now:

Step 3. Getting on the same page, and deciding on a panel format

Once the list of panelists is finalized, I like to send out a few ideas for the panel via email or a wiki (depending on how techie the panel is), and schedule a call—hopefully 3-5 weeks before the session.  In an ideal scenario I’d have some ideas up and ask the panelists to brainstorm some of their ideas (by editing the wiki) prior to the call.

On the call we’ll make sure we all know each other’s backgrounds, discuss some of the key points we’d like to hit in the session (I’ll take notes, which will go on the wiki), and brainstorm the most important thing for this call: the format of the session.

Panels don’t have to be “moderator asks a question, panelist answers it.”  There are many options for the format, and they vary based on:

  • Audience involvement
  • Speaker preparation
  • Whether the topic is primarily educational (you need answers) or controversial (you want disagreement/back and forth)
  • How important staying on topic is
  • Depth of time or attention necessary for each topic
  • All sorts of other things: how fun you want the session to be, how tired your audience is going to be at that time, how the room can be setup, etc

I can’t go into how each of these play a role in your panel format, but the actual panel format will likely consist of some combination of the following:

  • Introductions (either by moderator or panelists)
  • Formal, scripted presentations (3-10 minutes each, with or without slides)
  • Planned Moderator Q&A (questions that the panelists are prepped for)
  • Improvised Moderator Q&A (surprise questions that you as the moderator either planned or just came up with in response to the discussion)
  • Filtered Audience Q&A (someone gathers questions from the audience before the session, often via note cards or email, and then the moderator chooses which ones to ask)
  • Unfiltered Audience Q&A (an audience member poses a question to the panel), either throughout the session or at the end
  • Audience Interactive Exercises

When choosing your format, consider the variables I mentioned in the first list, as each of these formats lends itself to certain amounts of preparation and a particular dynamic during the session itself.

During my “Straight to the Brain” SXSW session, we used the following format over 60 minutes:

  1. I made a five minute introduction that provided an overview of the topic (with fun slides) and ended with an introduction to the panelists.  My introductions to the panelists was no more than 15 seconds per panelist.
  2. Each of the panelists presented a polished 7 minute presentation using slides/animation.  I made brief transitioning comments between each.
  3. I had a long list of questions from our wiki, and I chose what we had time for…directing every question to just one panelist and often only allowing one other panelist response.
  4. With about 20 minutes remaining I conducted a brief exercise with the audience.
  5. I asked a couple more questions of the panelists.
  6. With 7 minutes remaining, I invited questions from the audience.

The reason for this format, which was fairly structured, is we wanted to work extra hard to stay on topic and provide a compelling message to our audience.  Given that our presentation was about presentations, we wanted things to go incredibly smoothly—we had some back and forth, but it wasn’t over controversy.  While we wanted to involve the audience, we knew that our structured Q&A had been well-thought out and wanted to get through most of our questions, which we not only responses to, but had prepared visual examples.

During other sessions I’ve led, we haven’t had any formal presentations…but we still decided in advance who might be best fit for certain questions.

The important bits to note here are that these things need to happen over the phone and/or email and/or wiki prior to the day of the session:

  • Agreeing on the general schedule for the session
  • Deciding on the key points to provide to the audience
  • Brainstorming questions together (or rather, each panelist suggesting at least a couple questions)
  • Assigning various questions to specific panelists
  • Developing an understanding of how much time one can spend answering a particular question
  • Developing an expectation for whether or not there should be too much back and forth
  • Developing an expectation for how much time is allowed for “pitching” and how much time is allowed for “introducing oneself”

Knowing who should say what, when, and for how long means that each panelists knows how to respect each other and the audience’s time.  Now it’s your job to enforce it…

Step 4. Tips for Moderating a Panel

I firmly believe that the more time you spend on the preparation before the session, the easier your job as a moderator will be.  Here are a few pieces of advice based on my own values.  First some do’s and don’ts…

Your job is to enable the panelists to provide the most value possible to the audience.  That means you are allowed to and should do the following:

  • Introduce the session and the panelists
  • Decide what questions are most relevant as the panel progresses
  • Decide which panelists can speak: while dialogue can flow naturally, often you’ll be the “parent” who makes sure that everyone gets an opportunity to share.
  • Transition between the topics
  • Keep track of time: cutting panelists off when necessary by passing notes to them (my favorite approach), signaling them, or if necessary, interrupting them; and, recognizing when the agenda needs to be modified, etc.
  • Paraphrase any points that you believe won’t be understood by the audience: you as the moderator are kind of like an “informed representative” from the audience—you’re curious for them, but you’re also likely more knowledgeable than the audience on the nuances of the topic at hand.
  • Take care of your panelists: if one of them looks like they’re not getting an opportunity to voice their opinion, find a way to involve them; if someone’s thirsty, communicate with the event staff to get them water; if there are technical difficulties, know who to call or how to fix it.  You as the moderator are in charge and the panelists are trusting you to make them look good and keep everyone in the room comfortable enough to focus on the content.

Remember: you’re the moderator, not a panelist.  Though you may (or may think you) know more than the panelists, be very careful.  Here are some things not to do (and yes, these happen a LOT):

  • Don’t talk about your background.  You can offer your title and maybe one other tidbit, but if you spend more than 20 seconds talking about you then you’re not being a good moderator.  Think of the last time you watched an interview on television—the interviewer didn’t provide their background, did they?  You are in charge, but this session isn’t about you.
  • Don’t answer questions, lead your panelists through the answers to questions.  If something isn’t covered, before you try to cover it, see if you can get one of your panelists to address it by setting them up for an easy answer.  Think of yourself as a point guard—you’re bringing the ball up the court and trying to get everyone in position…but at the last second there’s a good chance you’ll dish it off to a forward who’s now in a good position to shoot.  Or if that’s not clear enough, consider yourself the coach, not a player on the court.
  • Don’t take sides.  While you can control much of the way a panel progresses, you want to let your audience decide what to think on their own…don’t let it be because of some snide remark or dirty look you gave. You are neither the panelists nor the audience, you’re channeling the message of the former for the latter.  While you can clarify the message, don’t taint it.  You get editorial control in setting up the panel, choosing the questions, and moderating the time allocated…but you don’t have veto power.

As the moderator, you have the opportunity to manage the relationships between the panelists…and their relationship with the audience.  You can be the host without being the center of attention, people will know who’s running the show.

If you step beyond those boundaries, you will piss off the audience.  If you don’t control the panelists, you’ll lose your credibility (and so will the panelists).  But if you do it just right, you’ll get a lot of credit, and everyone will leave informed and happy. 

Wrapping Up

I’m not the most experienced moderator out there, so when you see me emceeing next month at Ignite DC or moderating the upcoming Bootstrap Maryland session, I’ll probably do a good job but maybe not be the best.  However, I have been to a LOT of conferences and panels and I’ve seen so many things that were not even close to a good job—things that could’ve easily been avoided.  And we’ve all been to session with knowledgeable panelists who didn’t provide any real value on their panel.

I blame the moderator for those instances.  With a little preparation and an understanding of expectations, things could’ve gone better.  I hope this article helps you to avoid many of those mistakes next time (many of which I’ve made!).

Got any other crucial advice?  Or questions?  Feel free to leave it below…

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


  1. Colleen Wainwright

    Damn. This series is proving incredibly helpful, Jared. You’re actually making me want to give moderating a whirl, and I *hate* the thought of moderating! (But I’d sit on any panel you moderated, baby.)

  2. Jared Goralnick

    Oh oh! I’d love to get you on a panel, Colleen!

    Thanks for the thoughts, Colleen…loving your writing these days!

  3. David Spark

    Great two part series Jared. You need to go back to the first article and link to this one.

    Far too many people simply don’t put the time and energy into producing a panel. I think if conference organizers simply make it clear to the moderators that they need to “produce” the panel then it takes the trouble off the conference organizer and puts the onus on the moderator. It really is a hard job, but people do truly recognize when a panel is well moderated.

    I would like to point your readers to my article, “More Schmooze, Less Snooze, How to Deliver ‘The Most Talked About’ Conference Session.” It offers a different viewpoint of producing panels.

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