Panel discussions have a bad reputation for good reason. Far too often, they\u2019re boring, repetitious and as lifeless as a lineup of bobble-head dolls.\n \n 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.\n \n \u201cAs a moderator, you need to understand your panel and all of its strengths and weaknesses,\u201d says Chris Vein, CIO of the city of San Francisco and a veteran speaker and moderator. \u201cYou need to really know your subject and your speakers\u2019 viewpoints. Then if somebody goes off in a different direction, you can finesse it and bring it back.\u201d\n \n The moderator is like a conductor, making sure every instrument gets a chance to play while keeping the overall performance moving gracefully along. \u201cEveryone thinks it\u2019s the time on stage that matters, but it\u2019s all about the preparation beforehand,\u201d says Julia King, executive editor for events at Computerworld, a sister publication to CIO.\n \n Having managed dozens of CIO panel discussions over the years, I\u2019m on a continual quest for best practices in the moderating arts. One of the most useful online tutorials I\u2019ve read is Scott Kirsner\u2019s blog post \u201c12 Guidelines for Great Panel Discussions.\u201d Guy Kawasaki\u2019s blog, How to Change the World, has some pithy, irreverent guidelines for moderators and panelists alike.\n \n When I asked a few of my favorite moderators for advice on avoiding some panel pitfalls, they offered these tips:\n \nDon\u2019t rely on panelists to introduce themselves. Collect an updated bio and pare it down to three sentences to use in your own opening remarks. \u201cChallenge your panelists to be so provocative, they\u2019ll get more of the questions,\u201d says Alan Paller, research director for the SANS Institute, a security training and research organization. \u201cRemind them that they\u2019re not there to pontificate. Don\u2019t be dull!\u201d\n \nDon\u2019t over-rehearse. Do your own homework on the topic, of course, but don\u2019t hand out a list of canned questions (unless you want rote answers). If you don\u2019t 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.\n \nDon\u2019t let the parrots loose. Tell your panelists to avoid echoing each other\u2019s comments. An excess of polite agreement is a big yawner for the audience. \u201cI 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,\u201d says Computerworld\u2019s King. \u201cI\u2019ll ask them instead, \u2018How is that different in your industry?\u2019\u201d\n \nDon\u2019t turn the microphone over to the audience. \u201cPeople don\u2019t ask questions, they give speeches,\u201d Paller warns. \u201cWe give the audience 3x5 cards to write down their questions and hand them in.\u201d This works especially well with a room full of introverts, plus it gives you quality control over the timing and content of the questions.\n \n Moderating a panel\u2014whether it\u2019s for a local IT association, a big company meeting or a CIO conference\u2014pays you back with more than beneficial career exposure. It will deepen your network with more meaningful connections and conversations than you\u2019d ever have over coffee in some conference hallway.\n \n So when the chance comes along to run a discussion, don\u2019t take a pass. Get in touch with your inner panel moderator and move to center stage.