by Maryfran Johnson

How to Be a Good Panel Moderator

Aug 31, 2010

Managing a discussion on stage is a valuable skill. Here’s three ways to improve.

Panel discussions have a bad reputation for good reason. Far too often, they’re boring, repetitious and as lifeless as a lineup of bobble-head dolls.

This is a crying shame and a lost opportunity. A panel discussion is meant to create the kind of conference theater that showcases snappy, memorable exchanges of insights and ideas. But when a potentially interesting panel devolves into dullness, I blame no one but the moderator.

“As a moderator, you need to understand your panel and all of its strengths and weaknesses,” says Chris Vein, CIO of the city of San Francisco and a veteran speaker and moderator. “You need to really know your subject and your speakers’ viewpoints. Then if somebody goes off in a different direction, you can finesse it and bring it back.”

The moderator is like a conductor, making sure every instrument gets a chance to play while keeping the overall performance moving gracefully along. “Everyone thinks it’s the time on stage that matters, but it’s all about the preparation beforehand,” says Julia King, executive editor for events at Computerworld, a sister publication to CIO.

Having managed dozens of CIO panel discussions over the years, I’m on a continual quest for best practices in the moderating arts. One of the most useful online tutorials I’ve read is Scott Kirsner’s blog post “12 Guidelines for Great Panel Discussions.” Guy Kawasaki’s blog, How to Change the World, has some pithy, irreverent guidelines for moderators and panelists alike.

When I asked a few of my favorite moderators for advice on avoiding some panel pitfalls, they offered these tips:

Don’t rely on panelists to introduce themselves. Collect an updated bio and pare it down to three sentences to use in your own opening remarks. “Challenge your panelists to be so provocative, they’ll get more of the questions,” says Alan Paller, research director for the SANS Institute, a security training and research organization. “Remind them that they’re not there to pontificate. Don’t be dull!”

Don’t over-rehearse. Do your own homework on the topic, of course, but don’t hand out a list of canned questions (unless you want rote answers). If you don’t have time to conduct a pre-panel telephone call with each panelist separately, talk to them in groups of two or three. Never assemble the entire panel on one of those godawful group conference calls.

Don’t let the parrots loose. Tell your panelists to avoid echoing each other’s comments. An excess of polite agreement is a big yawner for the audience. “I remind my panelists that we have 45 minutes to an hour, so we want to focus on the contrasts of what the others are saying,” says Computerworld’s King. “I’ll ask them instead, ‘How is that different in your industry?’”

Don’t turn the microphone over to the audience. “People don’t ask questions, they give speeches,” Paller warns. “We give the audience 3×5 cards to write down their questions and hand them in.” This works especially well with a room full of introverts, plus it gives you quality control over the timing and content of the questions.

Moderating a panel—whether it’s for a local IT association, a big company meeting or a CIO conference—pays you back with more than beneficial career exposure. It will deepen your network with more meaningful connections and conversations than you’d ever have over coffee in some conference hallway.

So when the chance comes along to run a discussion, don’t take a pass. Get in touch with your inner panel moderator and move to center stage.