How to Moderate a Panel

How to moderate a panel? More like how do you moderate a successful panel? I didn't know the answer before I was invited to do just that at this year's BlogWorld & New Media Expo.
I felt like a dork being as nervous as I was. I've been on lots of panels, even on some with the likes of Richard Peck and Karen Cushman. I've spoken in front of hundreds of people. I go on live TV every month…but this was my first conference that wasn't all about children's literature. I would be presenting to people in many different fields and I was sure everyone else would know what they were doing. I took my job as moderator very seriously! Fear will do that to me.

Pat Flynn Moderating
Pat Flynn Moderating

I've come away from this experience knowing that prep is my best friend. All I had to do was do a search “how to be a good moderator” and boom! I was on it. I researched, reading six-eight long blog posts and various articles on the responsibilities of a moderator and what makes a good panel.  It was pretty easy, once I knew what to do.
After seeing how on track our panel was, and how some other panels went, I am now convinced that every conference, regardless of subject or attendee profiles, should create a moderator tutorial. After my experience at BlogWorld, here are some points I think they should contain.

1. Know your panelists

Read their books, surf their sites, and listen to their videos and/or podcasts. I also did this for panels I was on but not moderating. It allowed me to make stronger points for or in opposition to my fellow panelists, which made it more interesting for everyone.

2. Create unique questions

It'll be way more interesting if you have questions peculiar to each person on your panel. Of course, it is kind of cool to hear each person's view on the same subject but if you only have an hour, and you need to leave a third of that for questions, it's more productive in covering more ground to ask each panelist a unique question.

3. Bring notes

My notes were printed out and placed in clear sleeves in a presentation booklet I got at Staples. I do the same thing for speeches. This way I don't have to worry about pages falling off the podium, and it's easy to turn to the next page. At the risk of being called completely anal retentive I will reveal that I colored coordinated each of my panelists questions. So, Lisa was green, Mur was blue, and Amanda was pink. This way I didn't have to worry about who was going to answer the question.
I even included the things to remember, like making sure everyone had water and reminding my panelists to answer while looking at the audience, not me. I included my housekeeping notes that I needed to tell the attendees, too.

4. Audience control

If someone raises his or her hand during the presentation, or, as happened at one panel, just walks up to the mic and starts talking, as a moderator you need to have the authority and confidence to say, “We'll answer questions at the end, thanks?” You can certainly be nice and polite, but be firm.

5.  Panelist control

Same goes for your panelists – feel free to politely but firmly cut them off if they start to blather on, obliterating anyone else's chance to answer.

Derek Halpern & Adam Baker
Derek Halpern & Adam Baker next to me on Pat's panel

6. Create a handout

No other presentation I went to had any kind of handout. Maybe this is just done at educational conferences I'm familiar with, but I created a 16 page handout, with a ton of support info. It was available on a private page my site and contained panelist's bios, info about our shows, and dozens of links to help attendees with learning about our topic.

7. Time yourself!

After you write your questions, time how long it takes to ask them. Time yourself reading each panelist's bio (by the way, one thing I learned was to embed the person's bio in a question, which made it more interesting). Add two or three minutes to every question to account for your panelist's answer. Then, when you're “live” have your phone or a clock in front of you. Make sure you save time for Q&A!

8. Verbalize the takeaways.

I read and re-read the panel description (which I wrote) and the takeaways and made sure to use that language in my questions. I wanted to make sure I delivered what was promised and I also wanted to drive it home that it was delivered.

9. Chocolate never hurts.

I did. I brought bribes. About five lbs of very tasty chocolate turtles were passed around as people entered and got seated. Why not treat the people who come to see you? It was at slump time, too, and you would not believe the smiles I got when people saw what they were getting.
If you follow even just these brief pointers, you'll know how to moderate a panel. A successful one.

Recent Comments

  • Julie Falatko
    June 12, 2012 - 6:39 am · Reply

    I did my master’s thesis on What Makes a Successful Student Book Group. I studied student ages, whether the book group was in the library or classroom, who picked the books, whether the books had a theme, and whether the book group was mandatory. My conclusion was exactly the same as How to Moderate a Successful Panel: be prepared, and bring food. Now I’m starting to thing that we should write a book called Be Prepared, and Bring Food: Katie and Julie’s Guide to Life.

    • katie
      June 13, 2012 - 4:50 pm · Reply

      Well I would moderate a panel you were on any time! I’ll never forget the one we were on together – what an honor that was for me!

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