Moderating a panel

IF WE’RE HONEST with ourselves, we’ll admit that many conferences we attend prove disappointing, if not an utter bore. Most often, the topic is interesting, the speakers qualified, the venue pleasant, and the audience motivated. Moreover, an enormous amount of effort and money go into the logistics of such events. How could it all go so wrong? The primary culprit is lack of what you could call scripting, orchestration or choreography. More than lectured, we want to be engaged and entertained. A conference therefore is a performance that necessitates some stagecraft.

A key figure in that respect is the moderator on a panel, who is expected to introduce speakers to the public and structure the discussion. If you are invited to assume that role, don’t stress about having to put on a good show: your task is to bring the best out of others. Of course, you’ll be operating within a web of constraints: the topic’s appeal, the event’s format and timing, the temperament of panelists, and so on. Regardless, there are tips and tricks that will help improve even the worst configuration.

The most conventional form of moderation is a useful benchmark. In this set-up, you would spell out the panelists’ profiles, let them deliver their presentations, and then open the floor to the public for comments and queries. A frequent, worst-case scenario entails recounting long, formal biographies; speakers reading directly from dry papers and going overtime; and members of the audience jumping on the opportunity provided by the Q&A to harp on as if they belonged to the panel. That virtually ensures you lose most of the public to email and social media.

Moderating is all about making things at least moderately more exciting for the audience, the panelists and yourself. You may draw on a variety of tools to do so:

  • Frame the question. Conference titles and agendas are typically more straightforward than intriguing. Take time to think about why the topic you are involved in is interesting, and turn the answers you come up with into brief introductory remarks, designed to pique the audience’s curiosity. You need not be an expert, and must not talk for long: substance is for panelists to provide.
  • Pitch your characters. Your speakers are on the panel for good reason—not because they earned a PhD in 1978. Read up on them, meet them beforehand if possible, and bring your introductions down to what truly makes them part of this particular cast. All the public wants to know is why these people are important to listen to.
  • Steer the discussion. The ideal panel is one where a sequence of lively interventions succinctly and compellingly covers all key aspects of the issue under examination. The moderator’s goal is to obtain that outcome, while remaining as self-effacing as possible. This can be done by: engaging the panelists before the event, to narrow down the scope of their contributions, and agree on very specific points they will address; putting pointed questions to the panelists on stage, rather than giving them the floor open-endedly; if the format allows, regularly switching from one speaker to the next to create and maintain some momentum; and constantly bearing in mind the structure of the overall “performance,” in terms of time allocation and boxes you want to tick substantively. That is how, with practice, you will create and sustain a certain “rhythm.”
  • Exact discipline. If nothing else, moderators are timekeepers, a responsibility they all too often shy away from. You must set explicit rules of the game: say, panelists can speak for ten minutes, and will take only two precise questions from the public. Those guidelines are then to be enforced. If a speaker gives indications of going overboard, detect them and act early on. Begin making your way through the conventional range of signals at your disposal: draw their gaze to a “two minutes left” note; ostensibly sit up in your seat and start fidgeting; breathe into or tap your microphone; and, if all else fails, politely but firmly interrupt. You can do so, diplomatically, by praising the presentation; reinforcing a couple of its key points; asking a very narrow question leaving no room for elaboration (e.g. “to conclude, if there is one essential idea you want to leave the audience on, what is it?”); or simply making a subtle transition to the next contribution. The same principles apply to interventions from the public, only far more stringently. Your rigor will be respected, on condition that you lead by example with your self-discipline: set the tone by keeping your own contributions crisp and to the point.
  • Wrap up. All good things must come to an end, or cease to be good things. So don’t let a panel peter out confusedly: bring it to a climax, preferably with a quick, smart summary both showing deference to the panelists and adding value, or with a joke, a heartfelt thank you and a clap, or any other form of closure that best suits the nature of the event and your personal style.

A good panel follows the classic structure of storytelling, with an opening hook grabbing the audience’s attention, a set of characters, and a narrative sequence culminating in a finale before quickly winding down. That is why some panels are more engaging than others. That is also why you’ll be forgiven for assuming a form of authority: a well-orchestrated conference is a performance panelists will take pride in, and which the public will be grateful for. It doesn’t have to be perfect: we’ve all been subjected to dreary conferences often enough to see your efforts as huge relief already.

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Illustration credit: Georg Mühlberg Studentisches Säbelduell um 1900 by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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