A couple of months ago I was approached by a soon-to-be conference panel moderator who asked if I had some tips. Having attended a fair number of conferences and having moderated panels, debates, and meetings in both politics, web development, and several other professional settings, I had a fair bit to say.
For conference newbies it may be surprising to learn that panels are quite controversial, and for good reason. Panels are often the fallback option when you have multiple speakers pitching the same topic, panels can become the place a conference chooses to stack women speakers in an attempt to bring up the gender ratio, and panels are often poorly prepared, executed, and moderated leading to boredom or catastrophe, sometimes all at the same time.
Much has been said about how to organize and moderate panels at conferences and I don’t purport to be an expert on the topic. What I do have is extensive experience dealing with politicians, clients, and people who can’t agree on anything, and I have accumulated a wide range of tools and skills to coax a conversation towards a chosen goal. And these tools and skills have proven invaluable in when moderating a conference panel.
So here, mostly unedited from my original email, is my Simple Guide to Conference Panel Moderation:
Panel Moderation is Conversation Seeding
Panel moderation is tricky business and every moderator does things differently. I base my moderating on my background in political parties where strict moderation is necessary to keep the conversation on topic and ensure everyone is represented equally. Here’s a short breakdown of what I do and answers to your questions.
At least a week before the event I organize a meeting with all the panelists, usually over the web. This allows them to meet each other before the fact and helps build a relationship of sorts between them. In preparation for the meeting I ask all of them to think about what they want to bring up in the panel discussion. We then discuss the topics in the meeting. It’s important to not do the actual discussion but rather a meta discussion, ie. “is this something we should talk about or not, is it off topic,” etc. Save the actual discussion for the event.
After the meeting I ask all of the panelists to send me a set of talking points they want to bring up. I use this as the basis for my preparation along with my own research.
On the actual event day I try to connect with all the panelists ahead of time to get a feel for where they are mood wise on the day. That way I can ease into the discussion and avoid egging them on if they’re already stressed out. It’s also worthwhile because you get to see how loud they speak in person.
I’ve been to many panels where each speaker is allowed to introduce herself. This usually results in a big waste of time. To remedy this I’ve started introducing each speaker based on their social media profile. “This is X. According to Twitter she is a Y and loves dogs”. If a projector is available this is accompanied with a slide of the panelist’s Twitter profile page. I of course warn the panelists ahead of time about this so they can change their profile or photo if it’s totally ridiculous. The reason I use Twitter is that it allows the audience to follow the panelists right away and kicks off the social media discussion. Twitter bios are also nice ans short so the whole process takes maybe 3 minutes.
If the crowd is of the Twitter-using variety it is a good idea to create a custom hashtag for the panel discussion and ask people in the audience to Tweet that hashtag with questions for the panelists. This requires an accomplice in the audience or on stage that can monitor the feed and pick out the questions worth asking.
For the conversation itself I try to give as much time as possible to the panelists. In my view the moderator is there to facilitate the conversation more than parttake. I start out by briefly outlining the issue and setting up the two or three extreme opposing views that can be had. This requires some serious research on my part ahead of time.
Once I’ve outlined the extreme opposing views I give each panelist an opportunity to state their case. This varies greatly depending on subject matter. It could be a 2 minute statement or a 5 minute slideshow presentation or something even longer. The key here is to hold each panelist to their time. “You have 5 minutes” means they have 5 minutes. If they’re not done you cut them off.
Seeding a Conversation
After the presentation of views I like to start asking questions based on what each panelist has said. So instead of asking the other panelists to just respond I say things like “Anna says cats are murderous monsters that ruin native habitats. At the same time Malin said cats are great companions. So Malin, are you saying that companionship trumps murder? Or are you refuting Anna’s claim?” This allows me to steer the conversation and gives the panelists very clear direction of what to address. Once one person answers you can then pass the question, or some variety, to another person or you can flip the question and let panelists respond.
The trick here is to not dwell too long on one topic. I try very hard to segue from one topic to the next based on the panelists and what they say to make the conversation flow. The key here is to avoid having to stop and reset. This requires that you know the topic well and that you are paying close attention to what each panelist is saying at all times.
Bringing Everyone In
By controlling the conversation like this you can also ensure that everyone gets to take part. In most panels you’ll have at least one person who falls behind in terms of participation because the other panelists are more aggressive. By directing questions to that person you bring her into the conversation and you can then user her view to build a new topic.
Use the talking points submitted in advance, your own research on the topic, your research on the panelists, and what they have said in the past to create an engaging conversation that is both directed and informative.
Moderation, Devil Style
Personally I like to take on the role of the Devil’s Advocate and I ask all the very hard questions. This can easily result in people thinking I’m inconsistent or even that I have very offensive views. If this is going to happen I make sure to tell the audience at the start of the session that I will be “challenging the panelists” by presenting extreme views from all sides. This is not to offend, nor a representation of my own views. It is to bring light to the topic at hand.
Whether you accept questions from the audience in large part depends on the conference format and the topic. In some cases you can get the audience to submit questions beforehand but more often than not you are forced to take questions live from the audience. If so, try to take over the question. An audience member asks something, you repeat the question, and direct it to a specific panelist. Once the question is answered you can ask another panelist to pipe in or move on. You’ll often find that a question is directed toward a specific panelist but another panelist actually has more to say or an important counterpoint, so allowing others to pipe in can be vital.
When polling the audience remember that women have a tendency to not raise their hands as high and also take their hands down quicker. Same goes for shy people. Be observant of that and try to ensure you get as many questions from women as from men. To that note, be careful to not announce things like “we only have time for one more question”. This immediately results in most women and shy people taking their hand down and you may very well miss out on the most important question of the event.
Finally, have your accomplice feed you questions from Twitter or other social media, and prepare your own questions as backup.
The End is Nigh
When you’re close to time and want to wrap, create a simple question for all the panelists to answer. Something like “If the audience were to take away one thing from this conversation, what would that be?” or “What is the one thing every audience member should do when they get home?” or “How can the audience implement what you’ve been talking about in their work routine today?” Short and simple.
Once that last question is answered, thank each panelist in turn, refer to their Twitter profiles, the hashtag, and thank the event for hosting the talk. At the very end wrap up by thanking the audience for letting you monitor and mention your own name.
Your Turn: Share Your Thoughts, Ideas, Experiences, and Links
Have opinions on conference panels or what I’ve presented here? Thoughts or ideas? A conference panel experience as a moderator, panelist, or audience member? Or maybe a link to other resources on panel moderation? Share them in the comments below!