How a Moderator Facilitates a Lively and Informative Panel Discussion

The day has arrived for the panel discussion you’re moderating.

Denise Restauri is a panel discussion moderator
Denise Restauri

Last week, I described how the moderator and panelists do their advance preparation. In this post, I’ll discuss how to moderate a panel discussion that will have the audience on the edge of their seats.

Before Going On Stage

Before going on stage, the moderator should arrange for all panelists to meet each other, and for the moderator to meet with all panelists for last-minute updates or instructions and to comfort panelists who exhibit any anxiety.

Sometimes you have control over the setup. At other times you have no control. My favorite setup is talk-show style — chairs in a semicircle with no table. This setup is less formal, and makes it easier to have a conversation because the moderator and panelists can see each other. My least favorite setup is panelists seated behind a table and the moderator at a podium.

The Key To A Successful Discussion

I find most panels to be dreadfully boring, filled with fractured conversations because the moderator does the Q&A bounce to each panelist.

I believe the key to a successful panel is keeping it personal and conversational through stories because when someone tells a story, people lean in and listen. Stories are personal and meaningful — they’re not sales pitches.

My favorite approach is to ask the panelists to picture this:

You’re all having dinner at a restaurant, seated at a window table. You’re very engaged and animated. People walk by and wonder what you’re talking about. They wish they could be seated next to you to eavesdrop or, better yet, wish they could be at your table.

On the day of the panel the audience is going have a seat at your table. They’re going to be a part of your conversation about successes, fears, lessons learned and challenges.

Telling Personal Stories

It doesn’t need to be a “nice” conversation. It can include debates – but always being respectful. I will kick off the conversation with: “Will each of you share one personal story that was a defining moment for you that led to you doing XYZ? Please complete a sentence that starts with “I saw” or “I heard” or I “learned.”

From that point until the Q&A, the conversation happens naturally because the panelists are talking to each other and the audience, including healthy banter between the panelists.

The moderator may need to jump in to keep the conversation on track and moving forward by asking short and simple questions: “As we’ve heard, there are many different ways to reach the C-suite. What does success look like to you? Ron, will you start this conversation please?”

Managing The Conversation

I have pre-planned cut-off phrases. If a person is talking without making a relevant point, it’s OK to interrupt, acknowledge that his points are good, and ask him to describe something very specific about his story that brings him back on track.

If the person is tying up the airwaves, when she takes a breath (and she will!), interrupt by saying, “Jane, we need to pause, but your points are great and hopefully you’ll be here after the panel to answer questions the audience may have.” Important: Tell panelists you are going to use cut-off phrases.

Taking Q&A

I prefer questions at the end of the discussion, after the panelists have shared their views. Asking the audience to submit written questions the moderator can screen is one method for Q&A. Allowing spontaneous questions is also perfectly acceptable.

It depends on the audience and panelists. Both ways can work. In either case, it is important for the moderator to:

  • Repeat the question so everyone in the audience can hear it, if it is hard to hear the person asking it.
  • Summarize long or convoluted questions so they make sense.
  • Spread the questions among the panelists. If one panelist seems to be getting all the questions, ask another panel member to also answer the question.

Avoiding Disaster

I recall the first panel I ever moderated. I thought it would be easy and I didn’t spend much time preparing. I was wrong. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t great. It was ho-hum and no one wants to be ho-hum!

I used to think that I had to do everything the panelists asked, especially if they were “powerful.” What I have learned is that although this isn’t about me, it is my panel to moderate. When you start including all the feedback that five powerful panelists offer, you can’t possibly fit it all into one discussion.

Take the best and leave the rest behind. That includes not reciting their bios when you introduce the panelists — all 500 words that their assistants insist you must read. Remember why Twitter is so popular – people want their information bite-sized.

The most important advice I can offer a moderator is this: It’s not about you. Check your ego at the door. Have fun!

Denise Restauri is Founder & CEO of GirlQuake, a company that amplifies the voices of girls and women by giving them platforms to create a global force for positive action. As a contributor, she shines the spotlight on female leaders and entrepreneurs. Denise recently moderated a panel at the 2012 Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy. Denise has been on The Today Show, CBS Early Show, ABC and more.

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  1. Thanks Denise for the Post. I did handle a panel discussion recently and wish I had read your article. While I connected with the panelists and suggested a meeting, everyone was too busy to sit together. I did have some problems with stucture and the way they communicated. But the personal stories you mentioned made the discussion a great success.

  2. Thank you so much Denise for taking time to post and for giving such invaluable advice. I have been invited to be a moderator. It is my first and I hope the discussion to be engaging, interactive and lively. But I needed help and your posts have done just that. Your personal experience, the suggested “phrases” and moments to look out for are just what I need. I will adapt the “cut of phrases” and telling of personal stories for a start. Thank you.


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