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How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel

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Sadly, the value of most conference panels is questionable, due mostly to the lack of effective moderation.

Just recently I heard that one nervous moderator asked the panelists to introduce themselves, then went directly to Q&A, providing little structured value to the audience.

On the complete opposite end, I've seen a self-important moderator answer questions from the crowd when it was his job to field questions to the panelists.

Below, I provide some thoughts on how to successfully moderate a conference panel.

Objectives and Approach


Think of the audience as your customers

Treat the audience like your customers; they've paid with money and time to come to your panel. Your job is to give them the information they need, or to entertain them, and often both.

You've one of the most difficult jobs, as you'll have to set the pace, maintain some control, but know when to back off. Remember that you're here to serve the audience first and panelists second.

Select the right panel members

Often, a moderator is asked to select the panel; that isn't always the case, but you are likely going to be involved. Find folks who don't always agree, and look for experts in the field.

I find that 3-4 panelists just right. Any fewer, and it becomes difficult to flesh out all the points of view; any more, and it quickly becomes unwieldy. Once, I was 1 of 5 panelists, and I think I spoke a total of 5 minutes—a real waste of time.

Find out what success looks like

Look at the context of the conference: What is it about? who is attending? what are the other panels? Ask the conference organizers what success would look like, what questions does the audience want answered, and what their level of sophistication is.

Preparation

Get to know the panelists

This is often difficult, as many panels never meet in advance; but in our social world, many folks are online and can be found. Do Google searches on their name and the topic at hand, and you may be surprised what you find.

Research the topic

The most entertaining panels have a dash of debate, look at an issue from many angles, offer practical steps to get started, and tell a few jokes. Find where the points of contention are and be sure to bring them up. That's how you'll bill the panel.

Properly market the panel

Successful panels will often have a title that is catchy and in tune with the conference; beforehand, they often provide a detailed summary of what the audience will get out of it. You should alos blog about the upcoming panel—and the panelists should, too.

Develop agenda bullet points

I try to establish 3-5 general, high-level bullet points to help the panelists prepare and research. Don't get into overly detailed questions, because you don't want panelists to be overly rehearsed. I always have some questions in store if no one asks questions, and it's good to throw some curve balls to panelists after they warm up.

Have prepared notes

Print out the research you did of panelists' bios, the points of contention, the high-level agenda, and the follow-up questions you may want to ask. I'm also known for requiring the panelists to bring a case study or example with measurable results.

Before you use PowerPoint, really think it through

In most cases, panels should focus on the discussion and interaction between the panelists. Presentations should be used only in the following situations: They add value by visualizing a concept, you've some industry stats that preface the event, there's a funny video that gets the crowd warmed up.

Have a mental checklist: Is this going to add value? Does this give each panelist an equal response opportunity? Is this truly necessary?

Have a pre-briefing meeting

It's really hard to get panelists to all get on the phone together; I can only think of a few times when this has worked. Instead, have a quick meeting in person before the panel actually happens; it will only take 15 minutes. This is good bonding time.

Be sure to remind them of the general structure, but make sure they're relaxed and will have fun. Listen carefully to the conversation, as you'll pick up interest points that will help you set up questions while on stage.

Housekeeping

Prepare all your notes, laptops; make sure everyone has water before you get on stage; in some cases, plan out where folks will sit. Remind the panelists, yourself, and the audience to turn off cell phones. Smile a lot, and have fun... OK, now we get on stage.

On Stage

Be a leader (the impact of body language)

I've studied this a few times: When I moderate, my body language is echoed by the panelists. If I sit up straight, or fidget, the panelist will follow suit.

The same happens when you speak. Look at the panelist when you ask a question, then look at the audience. If you look at the panelists after you've asked a question, they will instinctively look back at you when responding.

Unless responding to another panelist, the panelist should be addressing the audience, so keep your attention on the audience.

Set the stage by providing context

As the first speaker, the moderator should set the stage by quickly giving an overview of why this panel was accepted and what you're going to cover. I tend to avoid banter about "this panel is going to be great" or lengthy introductions about panelists. That usual pretty-talk is often low-value.

The first question should be a warm up

You should warm up the crowd, and the panelists, by asking a broad, easy question. Ask for a definition, or talk about the history of the topic, or why this topic is so interesting to the panelists.

Ask about benefits and opportunities

Some moderators let the conversation dive into the weeds too fast, focusing on ratty details, nuts and bolts before prefacing why these things are important. Guide the panelists to discuss the benefits first.

Ask about risks, challenge the panel

The audience is tired of industry zealots. We all know the panelists are passionate experts in their field, but you need to ensure a balanced viewpoint is presented.

Give an example of how something has not worked, and then ask the panelists to explore the risks. Give them the opportunity to talk about overcoming pitfalls, because your audience won't want to make the same mistakes.

When to Assert Control

Never let panelists pitch

This one really irritates the audience; they've spent time and money investing in a panel, they don't want to hear vendor pitches. Typically, when one vendor talks about how great his company is, the next panelists will need to one-up, and it never ends.

The moderator needs to pre-warn panelists that he or she won't tolerate this vile deed, and will cut them off in public—and that's embarrassing for everyone. BTW: If you're in the audience and you see this happen, you have a right as a customer to demand them to stop.

...but let them cite a case study

I prefer that panelists demonstrate their expertise by showing that they're experts in the field, or providing a case study of how their customers have been successful. There is a very thin line between this and a vendor pitch, so it's best to remember that a panel is more like a whitepaper than a brochure.

Keep on track

Panels will often get off track and onto new discussions, While that's certainly normal, your job is to gently bring it back into the original context. You might have to reframe a question or ask for further explanation on the topic.

Interaction Gives Life to a Panel

Listen in

Watch body language: Among the panelists, the one who wants to get a word in will be giving you non-verbal indicators; and the audience will give off vibes of paying attention, or expressing boredom, even disagreement.

You'll find little disagreements between panelists; be sure to pick up on those to segue to the next panelists, and ask them for a contradictory point of view.

Let the panelists talk to each other

Don't over-structure your panel by leading into a moderator question and response pattern alone; allow for some healthy banter between panelists, and let them chatter, jab, and joke among each other.

Know when to pass the mic

Don't let any particular panelist dominate the session. You can interject between breaths and quickly pose the same question to the other panelists. I realize this seems rude—but this is your job, you represent the audience's time.

Know when to shut up

I've been a panelist many times, and have certainly been annoyed when some moderators go too far, they may try to make it more of a game show, insert too much humor, or answer the questions from the audience. Don't be that guy. Success happens when good conversation starts to take place on it's own, and you only need to gently guide.

Field questions from the audience

Always repeat the question from the audience, so that everyone can hear it and it'll get on any recordings being made. Summarize long-winded questions from the audience. Don't let an overactive commentator steal the show by asking too many questions; suggest that some discussion can take place after the event.

If there are no microphones in the audience, you may need to walk down and take the mic to them. Ensure that the questions are spread among from different folks, and let a single person ask a second question only once everyone else has had a chance.

Wrapping Things Up

End the panel

Finally, at the end, let the members talk about where they can be found online, or where others can learn more about them. It's best if you start, to set an example: "I work at company X in Y role, I can be found online at Z."

Thank the panel and audience, then prepare for the audience to come up to the stage and have one-to-one discussions.

Encourage the discussion to move online

Often, the conversation between the panelists and members is so engaging that they never want to stop. Create a wiki, forum, or Facebook group to continue the conversation.

Also assign tags at the session so that anyone who is blogging about it will be found. If you're a blogger, you may want to write up a wrap-up and link to anyone who took pictures. (Thanks to Zena for this suggestion.) 

Don't forget the final touches

Later, send a thank-you email to all the panelists, keep in touch with them, and always cherish how well this has gone for you.

Congrats, you've just moderated a successful panel!

* * *

This is just my perspective; be sure to read what others have written on this topic:

Note: This article is based on a post from the author's blog, "Web Strategy by Jeremiah." 


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Jeremiah Owyang is a Web strategist, speaker, and blogger/videoblogger focused on how companies use the Web to connect with customers. He is active on Twitter and can be followed at jowyang; if you follow him, he'll follow you back.

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