Conference season is here! One year into COVID, our gatherings are still confined to the digital world—but most of us are now familiar and comfortable navigating online conferences.
This includes one of my favorite conference events: panels. Panels offer an engaging way to tap into the experience and insight of subject matter experts. Great panels are informative and dynamic. Each panelist has the opportunity to shine while contributing to a larger group conversation that captures the diverse nature of differing perspectives.
Well, that’s what a great panel can be. There are also...not so great panels.
As a professional, I have attended not-so-great panels. As a communication therapist, I have worked with many clients who have been panelists on not-so-great panels and told me of their woes after the event.
One panelist hogged all the speaking time. There was no moderation. The moderator talked over the panelists or even argued with the panelists. The panelists didn’t have responses to the questions or seemed uncertain about what they were supposed to say.
Who’s responsible for this? The moderator.
Moderating is an art and a skill, but it is also very much a science. Inexperienced moderators can create successful, rewarding panel experiences for both speakers and audience members by completing a series of very basic tasks. Surprisingly, many moderators (even experienced moderators) don’t do this, leaving even the most illustrious of panel speakers to flounder.
Here are the basic steps for creating a solid, equitable, productive panel discussion.
- Select your Panelists: timing
How many panelists should you have? This is mostly dictated by the time allotted for the event. If you want to have a genuine exchange between panelists and your event is only an hour, seven panelists is too many. The event will be mostly over by the time they finish introducing themselves.
For a panel where discussion amongst panelists is the goal, 3-5 is generally a good number that will provide a variety of perspectives but a manageable discussion.
- Select your Panelists: personality
Panelists are generally individuals with a specific experience and/or subject matter expertise. However, not all experts make good panelists. A good panelist is someone who:
- Has knowledge and/or experience relevant to the topic
- Is comfortable sharing about that knowledge and/or experience with a room full of strangers
- Is self-aware enough to keep their comments on-topic
- Is considerate of other people’s expertise and speaking time
- Values the ability to converse with fellow panelists in addition to talking about their own work or opinions
In my own fields of work, I know of brilliant and experienced individuals who are definitely experts but whom I would not include on a panel, for one or more of the above reasons. Great panelists know how to share a conversation. A strong panelist doesn’t actually need to be an amazing public speaker, because a panel is not a monologue.
It’s normal for even highly conscientious speakers to get carried away when they are passionate about a topic. Considerate speakers respond respectfully to moderator nudges when this occurs and eagerly cede the talking space to other panelists.
Yes, as the moderator, your job is to keep speakers on track. But a moderator that is having to fight to moderate does not create a positive experience for anyone. Set yourself and all your panelists up for success by recruiting speakers who appreciate being part of a team.
- Prepare your panelists
Your panel is a team. A team works well together when they 1) know their teammates and 2) are prepared for the task at hand, both individually and collectively.
Basic information that should be given to all panelists at least one week prior to the panel event:
- An overview of the goal(s) for the panel event. Why is this panel taking place? Why will audience members attend this panel? What do the organizers hope the audience will take away from the panel discussion?
- Provide a list of everyone on the panel, including a brief description of each person’s expertise and how that contributes to the panel goals.
- Provide an overview of the panel format. Will panelists be answering a fully prepared set of questions one by one? Will there be an open dialogue format? Will audience members be invited to ask questions, and if so, for how long?
- If you will be preparing questions ahead of time, share those questions with your panelists so they can prepare.
Additional information that further improves panel quality:
- Tell panelists roughly how much time they should allot for any prepared questions (see below for how to calculate this). This enables your panelists to “right-size” their responses, considering what details they want to include and what is best left out for specific questions.
- If practical, coordinate a preparation meeting with the panelists prior to the event. Invite each of them to share why they are looking forward to speaking on the panel. This helps the speakers come together as a team, and they are more likely to self-moderate if they are familiar with their teammates. This also allows panelists to express any concerns (how to handle controversial topics, etc.), and everyone can collaboratively agree on how to handle the situation if it arises. This is especially recommended for panels with challenging subject matter, such as diversity or mental health.
4. Be obsessed about timing, and make sure everyone knows you’re obsessed
As the moderator, work backward to determine how much time is appropriate. If you have four panelists and you ask them to respond to an opening question with a ~4-minute response, that is 16 minutes of total event time. If you have a large panel of six people, that first question could take an entire half-hour.
Generally, 3-4 minutes is a sufficient length of time for a panelist to give a reasonably detailed response. Certain questions, such as opening introductions or closing remarks, may be as short as 1-2 minutes. Multiply these numbers by the number of panelists you have to identify how much total time a particular question or prompt will take. Factor in time for audience questions if that is part of the plan.
Provide these timing guidelines to your panelists multiple times. State this in the preparation email. Reiterate during the preparation meeting. Say it out loud, during the live panel when you ask the first question. With each reminder of how long they should talk for, state that you will cut panelists off if they are going on for too long. Explain that this is for the benefit of the group as a whole: we have many voices and opinions present, and we want to make sure we get to hear from everyone!
In practice, you do not need to mute or interrupt a panelist if they speak for 4:01 minutes. However, if panelists and the audience believes that the moderator is obsessively watching the clock, your speakers are much more likely to self-moderate.
5. Use opening and closing scripts
Write out what you will say to open and close the panel. As the moderator, your opening script should include:
- Welcome to all audience members and panelists
- Statement of the purpose of the panel
- Explanation of how the panel will work (e.g. prepared questions first, followed by Q&A; how and when audience members may participate)
- Tech rules and how-to, if a virtual event (keep yourself muted when not speaking, etc.)
- Speaker introductions
- First question
Your closing script should include:
- Thank you to panelists
- Thank you to audience members for attending
- Thank you to event organizers/hosts
- Follow up information, if relevant (e.g. date and time of next event, how to get involved with the organization)
- Thank you again
6. Follow the Golden Rule of Moderating: support, don’t star
A panelist’s job is to speak, to share, to respond to questions, to provide perspective and opinions.
A moderator’s job is to keep the panelists talking.
The worst panel I ever attended featured an amazing slate of four panelists with diverse backgrounds in the military, public policy, private enterprise, and education. Everything was very organized. The flow of the panel was that the moderator asked a question and each panelist responded in turn. Here was the flow of the conversation:
Moderator: [asks question]
Panelist 1: [answers for 2 minutes]
Moderator: [comments with opinions on Panelist 1’s answer, for 2 minutes]
Panelist 2: [answers for 2 minutes]
Moderator: [comments with opinions on Panelist 2’s answer, for 2 minutes]
Panelist 3: [answers for 2 minutes]
Moderator: [comments with opinions on Panelist 3’s answer, for 2 minutes]
Panelist 4: [answers for 2 minutes]
Moderator: [comments with opinions on Panelist 4’s answer, for 2 minutes]
Moderator: [asks question]
By the end of the event, the moderator had spoken for the same amount of time as the rest of the four panelists combined. Clearly, this moderator thought that his ideas and experiences were more valuable to the audience than the entire group of people who had been invited to speak.
The role of a moderator is as critical as the role of a building’s foundation. Without it, the entire thing collapses. But in its support role, it is unglamorous: meant to highlight other components of the structure (or event).
It is completely fine, and in fact productive, for a moderator to offer flavor comments here and there. In general, these should be statements that highlight the value of something shared by a panelist.
- “That was a very powerful story, thank you for sharing that with us.”
- “You articulated that in a very insightful way, and I think that applies to many of us in the room.”
- “That’s very similar to what [other panelist] also expressed. It’s great to hear this theme coming up over and over again, that really tells something.”
I recommend keeping these moderator flavor comments to no more than 1-2 sentences, before immediately moving on to the next panelist or next question.
How to Successfully Moderate A Panel: A Summary
- Select the right number of panelists
- Invite panelists who are trusted to be effective team-oriented speakers
- Prepare your panelists
- Lay down the law about timing
- Use opening and closing scripts
- Above all, remember you are there to support the conversation—the panelists are the star of the show!
Now go create some fantastic conversations.