What is the Role of the Moderator in a Panel Discussion?

All moderators should repeat this: “This is not about me. I am not the star.”

Denise Restauri is a panel discussion moderator
Denise Restauri

If you’re a moderator, you need to take all thoughts about “you,” dump them in an imaginary box and toss the box. If you want to be the star, switch seats and be a panelist.

You were asked to be the moderator because you are an expert, so be an expert moderator by shining the spotlight where it belongs – on the panelists. Make them look smart and you’ll look smart. A great moderator should speak 10 percent of the time — the rest of the time is for the panelists and the audience.

Let The Audience In

Engage the audience. Make the audience want more because the conversation is lively, the content is informative, and they’re a part of the conversation.

Give approximately 25 percent of the panel’s total time to the Q&A. The audience is investing their time and often money. Give them a great ROI.

Prepare yourself and prepare the panelists, but do not over-prepare them. (See below for details).

End on time. If the panel runs overtime, it’s the moderator’s fault.

Do Advance Preparation

I prepare for a panel by first answering this question: “What are the goals of all the key players involved — the organization running the event, the panelists and the audience?”

Research the panelists and the panel topic because the best way to sound like you know what you’re talking about is to know what you’re talking about. Even if you’re an expert on the topic, you may need to study the presentation styles of the panelists so you can better manage the different personalities.

Customize the flow and content of the panel discussion based on the panelists and the audience. It’s not one size fits all. What worked for a panel at the United Nations most likely will not work for a panel at Penn State.

Prepare questions to ask the panelists and have extras if you need to jump-start the Q&A. Tip: questions should be short and only one point in each question.

Get presentation skills training. “The problem with speeches isn’t so much not knowing when to stop, as knowing when not to begin,” to quote American author Frances Rodman.

This also applies to moderating a panel. Moderating is hard. If you’re not up to it, don’t take the challenge, or get help. Although you aren’t the star, your presentation skills need to be star quality. Your intro will set the tone.

I’ve had presentation training in the past, but recently I was asked to moderate a panel and I wanted to do everything possible to make sure I would be “in the zone.” I called Joyce Newman for help. It’s like being an athlete – you can always be better.

Pick the panelists. Many times the panelists are chosen by the organization. Other times the moderator will pick. Whoever is in charge should choose very carefully. Don’t just go for big names. Big names draw people to the event, but don’t guarantee a lively discussion.

Don’t Over-Prepare The Panelists

Talk to the panelists. I outline what I want to see happen on that stage and share my thoughts with the panelists, ideally in a conference call versus individual calls. This is about working together on stage, and a conference call starts it off as a team versus “me.”

On the call, we discuss the individual goals of panel members and how they all fit together to achieve the overall goal of the panel. I discuss their thoughts and concerns, emphasizing that the discussion will be about successes, challenges and the future.

Then we go through the no-no’s:

  • No use of slides. The only exception is if it’s a photo that tells an amazing story that can only be captured through an image.
  • No sales pitches – including selling yourself.
  • No questions given to panelists in advance, except for the lead question. Overview category questions are OK to share. This keeps the panel from over-preparing.

Based on the panelists’ input and feedback, we structure the discussion based on what will make for a successful panel. Then I send the panelists a “flow and content” document, that includes the title of the panel, a description, and how the Q&A will be handled. A few days before the panel, I email panelists with any updates and reconfirm the time and place we will meet.

In my next post, I’ll discuss what happens on the day of the panel. Stay tuned!

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 Forbes.com 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. Great article. I learnt a lot through quick visiting this. Very friendly writing. I am trying to make a moderation guideline for creating many moderators who will even moderate at citizens level. Thanks.

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