Moderating a Panel: 8 Ways to Run an Excellent Discussion

Panels are a great way to look at a subject from several viewpoints. Unfortunately, they can also become slow, boring torture when panelists and moderators adopt the "speak-only-when-spoken-to-or-questioned" attitude.
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You've just been asked to moderate a panel next week -- yikes! How do you get ready?
Panels are a great way to look at a subject from several viewpoints, and air diverse opinions. Unfortunately, they can also become slow, boring torture when panelists and moderators adopt the "speak-only-when-spoken-to-or-questioned" attitude.

The key to moderating a panel really well is to wear the hat of the talk show host. I'm serious -- the more you see yourself as responsible for the enjoyment, energy and interest of the audience and the panelists (as if it were your own show) the more you'll loosen up, and show your personality. Don't be afraid to add a thought, laugh or engage with more than one panelist at a time, and point out the reactions of the audience. It's great when a panel becomes a conversation between a bunch of really interesting people.

I've used improvisation skills for over a decade in my work to keep conversations lively, and you too, can integrate a "think-on-your-feet" attitude to make the most of your next role as moderator or panelist.

  1. Know your panelists in advance. Read their bios and arrange for a phone call if you can. I've been lucky enough to be a friend or acquaintance of some of the people I've had on my panels. That allows me to tell personal stories, humorous anecdotes, and tout them more than they would themselves. It's also more interesting than reading a bio straight out.
  2. Know your audience. If it's a room of business owners and entrepreneurs, they'll want to hear very different stories and ideas than a room of corporate IT executives.
  3. Go off-script. Rather than hearing one person's answer and turning to the next person, you can respond to an answer with something like, "That's a surprise, Regine, because it's not what we would have expected. So Louise, since you're the expert here in international law, how would you have approached the situation?"
  4. Give your panelists the OK to speak up out of turn. Ask them to respond honestly and to each other, not just to you, the moderator.
  5. Poll the audience. One fun improvisational tip is to leverage a yes or no topic. Ask the audience: "Let's pause and see what our audience thinks of that. Raise your hand if you would have taken action. Great. Now raise your hand if you would have waited without taking action." That involves the audience, and gives you fodder to comment on the panelist's story. "Wow, John, less than half of our audience would have taken action as you did. Tell us how you summoned the courage to do so."
  6. Have more questions than you need. Prioritize the questions according to what the audience wants to learn, and based on the panelists' backgrounds, try to sprinkle equal amounts of questions geared to each one. That way you'll be sure to give each panelist an equitable chance to speak.
  7. Use comfortable armchairs, not tables! You'll get so much more energy and stories from your panelists and yourself! Tables cut you off from the audience. One more thought about seating; avoid stools if you can. If you must use high stools, please let your panelists know in advance. I've watched as panelists in skirts and heels struggled to stay perched on a stool without an embarrassing moment, or older panelists with physical limitations sat in discomfort.
  8. Practice. In my new book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever, I talk about the importance of practice to be an effective presenter. The same goes for moderating a panel! Say the questions out loud, think of possible comments and identify ways to involve more than one panelist in each question. Your comfort and skill in front of the audience sets the tone for the entire discussion. Plus, if you're well-practiced, you'll be better able to manage the unexpected -- like a shy panelist.

Now get out there and have a great time. It's an honor to moderate a panel, so commit to making it as interesting, interactive and enriching as any good talk show host would!

Karen Hough, CEO of ImprovEdge, bestselling Amazon author, and winner of the Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Business of the Year. Look for her upcoming book Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over.

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