At most conferences, the panel discussions are terribly boring. In fact, some panels are so dreadful that many attendees use the time to network in the hallways or check emails. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
My friend Marcus Sheriden's LinkedIn article reminded me that September is the beginning of conference season in many countries and now is a good time to remind panel moderators about the importance of their role.
This blog post is adapted from one I wrote a few years ago, however the ideas are even more important now as we emerge from our COVID event hiatus.
I’ve moderated dozens of panels and witnessed hundreds more.
A moderator's job is to wrangle an interesting discussion.
The best thing to make a panel exciting is to always look for ways to build in controversy.
The most powerful part of an entire conference can be when two panelists get into a debate onstage. It makes for great action. And it lights up the social media feeds. It is a memorable moment that gets people buzzing during the cocktail reception.
I like to think of it like a movie - the most important part of a movie is two characters in conflict with one another.
"Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They get married" - what a boring movie! That's what most panels are - everyone agreeing.
"Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They fight. They break up. They fight some more. They find a way to get back together. They get married" - this plot includes the conflict that makes for countless great films.
In my discussions with panelists prior to the event, I encourage them to speak up even if I don't call on them if they disagree with another panelist.
2) Be brief and encourage panelists to do the same.
Short answers are way better than long-winded dissertations. I’ve had people suggest three minutes per answer. That’s way too long! At 3 minutes per answer with each panelist answering, that means a typical 45-minute panel can only handle 3 or 4 questions.
When I meet with panelists prior to the discussion, I encourage them to deliver a 30 second answer. I also suggest that if they don't have anything valuable to add, don't use the air time. Passing to someone else is much better than a waffling non-response.
It can also be incredibly powerful to answer in one or two words and allow the panel to move on. If two panelists answer a question in a similar way, it is super cool to just say "I agree" so the discussion can move on rather than re-hash the answers others have given.
I have been known to cut off long-winded answers! (The audience always loves when I do.)
3) Mix up the order of responses.
I prefer to not to "go down the line" and ask each panelist to answer each question in the same order. You don’t even need a moderator to do that. Rather, I randomly choose people to answer. Or not.
The other benefit of this approach is that panelists pay more attention because they never know when I might call on them.
Oh, and it’s okay for one panelist to ask another panelist a question. Or for a panelist to ask the moderator what she or he thinks.
As a moderator, I try to find a way to disagree (politely) with a panelist once in a while. It builds controversy (see number 1 above).
5) Use alternative information for introductions.
Everyone has the panelists bios in their conference materials so taking five minutes to repeat that information is a waste of time. It's better to find an interesting tidbit that isn't listed as an introduction. Do they have an unusual passion?
6) Encourage back-channel social media dialog.
I ask the AV team to make a slide with the panelists names and Twitter IDs as well as the event hashtag and have that on a screen during the entire discussion. It makes for way more back-channel social interaction when audience members know the social coordinates of the panelists.
7) Take a question or two via social media.
I like to sneak a peek at the social feed via the hashtag while I moderate and see if there is a good question I can ask from an audience member. I usually don’t request questions via social, but just see if I can find something interesting to ask.
8) Sit with the panelists, instead of lurking on high at the podium.
My preferred style to moderate a panel is to make the discussion more like a lively dinner conversation. I love to have back and forth and some debate, and hopefully some surprising twists and turns. I find that easier when I am together with the panelists rather than looming over them from a podium.
9) Have fun.
I look forward to moderating because it is an opportunity to engineer a lively and memorable discussion.
10) Wear orange socks.
Well, you don’t really have to wear orange socks like I did in the photo here of me moderating a panel. But by doing so, I sported the same color as the event logo and I injected some lighthearted fun before I even opened my mouth.
Panels can be the best part of an event when done right. Conference organizers are thrilled when a panel is interesting and full of debate.
IMAGES - Top: Me presenting at Tony Robbins Business Mastery. Bottom: Me moderating a the “Future Proof Marketing” panel at RECon MENA in Dubai in October 2018, an event organized by the Middle East Council of Shopping Centres.