Some thoughts on moderating panels

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Interop Las Vegas is fast approaching. As with any industry conference, this means panel discussions. Panels are often where good content goes to die. To succeed as a panel moderator, you have to do a lot of preparation to avoid your session going off the rails: you have much less control over what will be discussed or where things will go. But that’s no excuse not to prepare. Here are some ideas that have worked for me in the past.

You have only one job as moderator: to ask the questions the audience wishes it had asked. The moment a question leaves your lips, you want the audience to think, “yeah, that’s a really good point!” This only comes from a blend of genuine curiosity and a nose for the controversy.

Meet before you take the stage: As a moderator, it’s up to you to meet beforehand with your panelists. Ideally, talk with each person for a half hour or more. Read their bio; if they have a Wikipedia page, review it, and dig into some quirks of their background. This will help you put them at ease. Don’t wait until you’re on site to do this: panelists are often too busy to prepare properly, and the only way this will happen is if you nag and chase them.

Avoid agreeing contests: Panels on which everyone agrees might as well not happen. Admonish any panelists who agree out loud with others. They’re not adding anything, and are using up time. Make it your business to find the points of disagreement. The audience is there to learn something new, and in panels, this happens with big, hairy, audacious statements.

At one panel on data and governance, I advised the participants to be outrageous. They debated the tradeoffs between privacy and transparency eloquently for the better part of an hour. Then, right at the end, one of them lashed out: “Screw governance. That’s just stupid.”

Two days later, I asked some of the attendees what they remembered about the session. The only thing they could recall was his bombastic outcry. They couldn’t even recall who else was on the panel.

Get questions from the audience: While it’s your job to have questions, you should always defer to the audience. Solicit their questions frequently, by singling people out if you need to, but don’t be afraid to massage or redirect the original question once it’s asked. Audience members often need help generalizing their question so it’s relevant to the whole room.

If you’re brave, have Twitter open and watch the hash tag for the event, asking questions from the back-channel.

Tell people to shut up: Don’t be afraid to cut someone off. Panelists are notorious loudmouths, convinced they’ll get only one turn with the microphone and trying to blurt out their agenda before you can pry the mic from their grip. The audience will love you for doing so. Even the threat of being cut off makes panelists behave.

A moderator I know had a panel that included a brilliant—but notoriously long-winded—panelist. At the start of the session, he told the audience, “if he gets out of line, I’m going to throw stuff at him.”

Every time this panelist went a bit long, the moderator made a great show of crumpling up a piece of paper into a ball. The panelist stopped, the audience laughed, and the session went perfectly.

If they get slides, limit them: If you’re allowing panelists to speak, limit them somehow. Put a constraint on what they can show—a single diagram, for example, or 20 words. Constraints are good, and help the audience to apples-to-apples comparisons of the speakers.

We’ve run sessions in which each presenter had to deliver the same deck, explaining how each of the ten slides applied to their business. The audience loved having a structured comparison across presenters, and it was hard for the panelists to pitch their wares.

Remind people of the question: Bring your questions on cards. I like to put each question on a slide, and display them in the room, which keeps presenters on track.

At one event, a panelist completely ignored the question, and instead tried to pitch his company’s product. Another panelist cut him off, glanced at the screen bearing the question, looked at the audience with a grin, and said, “Unlike my esteemed colleague, I’m actually going to answer the question.”

He got a great laugh and scored a few points, and everyone else avoided salesmanship for the remainder of the session.

Be the jargon translator: Provide some context for the topic. If there are a few terms that might be jargon, define them. If there’s a framework that’s commonly used for discussing the issues, explain it. You’re trying to educate the audience so it can follow the topic, and at the same time, to show the panelists they don’t have to spend time on background and context. You’re also trying to tee up a few subjects for discussion later on.

Help panelists relate to one another, and the audience: Introduce your panelists in more detail. Mention each person’s company, the reason for their expertise, and something nobody else knows about them. Often, the smallest nugget of information will lead to something important later in the conversation.

Seed the conversation: Start with some seed questions, and don’t just throw them out there as a free-for-all. Instead, find a specific question on which each panelist is an expert and have him or her explain it. This makes each panelist feel like they’ve had their moment of glory, and avoids the “agreeing contest” problem where everyone feels they have to chime in.

Stitch it all together: At the end, try to summarize information so that the audience feels they learned something.

I once liveblogged the discussion I was moderating it, and the audience loved that they had a reference they could go back to which included all the key points and sound bites. They could also watch each point being typed in right in front of them, which meant they could glance at the screen if they missed something.

It was hard to multitask, however; I probably should have had someone else do it for me.

Panels don’t have to be miserable, nor should they feel like a commercial break between real content. At a recent conference, we had a 3-person sponsored panel on the main stage. I kicked the discussion off with a question none of the panelists expected—rather than asking them to say who they were, I asked them to define “open” in 140 characters or less. They were a bit flustered, but handled it well. Then we had a decent debate about the tradeoffs between openness and complexity.

Later that day, several of the attendees asked me about the session. None of them knew it was sponsored. And that topic—open clouds—became one of the underlying themes of the discussion. To me, that’s the height of success for a sponsored panel: not having the audience realize the panelists paid to be there.