In this busy fall conference season, I’ve participated in several panel discussions and presentations, both as a moderator and as a panelist, and both live and online. One thing that struck me was how critical the role of the moderator is. His or her skill and comfort in the role can make an event either remarkable... or decidedly meh.
Here are seven keys to successful moderation that can make your event memorable;
1. Prepare the team and tee up sound bites.
It’s a good idea to prepare your panel by having a pre-event briefing that convenes all of your panelists in one place or at one time. In my order of preference, that meeting takes place in person, on the phone, or via a single email.
I’ve participated in panels with no preparation save for a quick introduction in the hallway—either actual or virtual. And while that can work when the panelists already know each other and are well known to the audience, it’s not optimal; the absence of thoughtful prep doesn’t encourage the best performance from your panelists.
In the prep conversation or email:
- Give the panelists a sense of each other’s expertise
- Share what you’ll be covering
- Explain the format of the panel
- Be very specific with time allotments
- Define the audience and its likely needs and wants
- Brainstorm questions or issues to discuss.
Finally: Encourage panelists to be quotable, or “speak a few sound-bites,” as my friend Christina Kerley says. Suggest that they come up with a few short, solid sound bites that can make for great Twitter (and retweeting) fodder.
2. Qualify expertise.
On the day of the panel, keep your introduction for each panelist brief. Rather than simply regurgitating a name, title, and company—your audience will likely already have that handy in a session description or similar—convey instead their perspective or point of view in a single sentence: Why is this person passionate about the subject at hand? What’s their angle on an issue?
Doing so draws a kind of map for the audience, helps them frame the talk much more clearly, and sets up a far more engaging discussion.
3. Orchestrate expectations.
During one panel I was on recently, a hand shot up even before the introductions were dispensed with. Avoid that kind of disruption by giving the room a sense of the order of business—an agenda for the discussion and the best time to ask questions.
Don’t forget to also mention some basics: Where they can access handouts, and whether the discussion is being recorded for viewing online later.
4. Be an audience advocate.
It’s tempting to think of your primary role as moderating discussion among the panelists. It’s true that you do need to moderate the discussion and conversation there, but a moderator’s first responsibility is to the audience. You must be their advocate. How?
- Keep a pulse on the energy and reactions in the room. Is your audience confused? Do they seem to have questions? Are they actively listening, or do they appear bored and unengaged? I always look for the number of “sleepers” in an audience: If there’s more than one person dozing off (have you ever noticed that there’s always one?), then it’s time to shake it up by going off-script: Ask a clarifying question yourself, or better yet solicit a question from someone in the audience. If you’ve been watching your audience closely, you probably have an idea who will have a question.
- Step out from behind the podium. A great way to get a sense of the audience’s reaction as well as to bring the audience more actively into the discussion is to leave the podium. Doing so also encourages your panelists to look at the audience more rather than keeping their eyes trained on each other in the front of the room. It also encourages your audience to be less passive. As a bonus, being right in the audience makes it easier to solicit questions from attendees, as you can see who’s actively taking notes and trying to catch your eye, and who is checking their email or formulating their next play on Words with Friends.
- Get to as many questions as you can. I love audience questions, because the back-and-forth can bring up some interesting points. Also, the panelists aren’t always the smartest people in the room—and discussion can get interesting when you open up the floor to comments and feedback from the audience. That said, there’s no need to have every panelist respond to each question: Two responses per question is optimal.
5. Don’t cede control.
Being an advocate for your audience doesn’t mean you totally cede control to the few grandstanders or the clueless who are likely lurking there. Be prepared to interrupt an audience member who takes too long to ask a question, or who asks too specific—or too convoluted—a question.
I made a rookie mistake at one event recently when I handed over the microphone to an audience member, who subsequently launched into something impossibly meandering and longwinded. (If there was a question in there, it wasn’t clear.) It would have been better (and less painful) if I’d kept my hand on the mic and pulled it back rather than let her take over the event.
6. Keep a sense of humor.
The moderator sets the tone and energy of the room, so try to avoid being too heavy-handed in your role. Keep the energy up by keeping things moving along at a good clip. And be sure to maintain a sense of humor when things don’t go as planned. (See number 5.)
7. Invite the social web in.
Twitter offers a great opportunity to expand your audience to beyond those who are attending the event itself—before, during, and after the event.
For an event I moderated recently on the future of web engagement, for example, we solicited feedback from people on Twitter and Facebook prior to the event (“What questions do you have about web engagement?” “What issues are influencing the way you think about engaging with your own web visitors?”); and we followed up on questions to continue the conversation in those places post-event.
Of course, we also promoted the event hashtag before, during and after the event so that people could follow the discussion as it unfolded, and to encourage the audience to tweet during the event. Better yet, embed someone in the audience to cover the discussion for you, tweeting out the salient points and moments. (See number 1.)
It’s also a good idea to tee up a tweet or two ahead of time to publish just as the panel is kicking off to remind folks that it’s happening—something that announces the panel and includes its session name, the Twitter IDs or names of the panelists, a link to the online schedule, and the event or session hashtag. If you aren’t skilled at multitasking at the podium (I’m not), you might consider scheduling them ahead of time. For the record, I’m not a big fan of pre-scheduling tweets on Twitter, but there are a few occasions when it makes sense—this being one.
What about you? What ways do you bring it to your role as a panel moderator? What have you seen that works?
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the upcoming Content Rules (Wiley, 2010). Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs.