Be A Great Panel Moderator: Tips for First-Timers

Sonja Keerl
Being asked to moderate a panel discussion can be daunting, especially if you've never done it before. In this blog, Sonja shares her key tips to being an excellent moderator and making your panelists shine.

I recently received a question from a work friend asking me for advice on how to be a great panel moderator. There was an upcoming panel discussion she was set to moderate and she wanted to be sure to do an excellent job. I shared some tips I have learned on how to moderate a panel successfully, and I thought it would be great to share with everyone who is a newbie moderator.

Here is how to do an excellent job and make your panelists shine.

Be Prepared

The first step to being a great panel moderator is thorough preparation. Research the topic, gather essential data and relevant quotes. It is wise to have contradicting arguments at hand to make the discussion more interesting. A deep and thorough understanding of the topic or domain is helpful to remain cool in case curveballs come up.

Researching the panelists' professional background and experience will also come in handy. Find out what they are passionate about, their strengths, and weaknesses. During a preparation call, figure out their different perspectives and identify areas they agree or disagree. Already explore concrete examples or ask panelists to think about them.

Understand Personalities

Different panelists come with different personalities. Some might be quiet, while others love to hear themselves speak. Understand each panelist to know who needs prompt intervention and who you need to guide through the discussion with follow-ups.

Send a Rough Outline

It's essential to send a rough outline of the discussion to panelists 2-5 days before the panel. Ensure you ask for feedback and that their feedback is incorporated. Don’t hesitate to poke panelists if you don’t hear back. They have day jobs to run and you are making sure they will look good: you are helping them, not nagging.

Also, make sure everyone knows where to meet, what to wear if that matters, and for how long the session will be. Share mobile numbers too.

Day of Panel: Meet and Greet

Arrive early on the day to meet and greet the panelists. Shake hands, check how nervous they are, see if anyone has any final questions, tell them they will be amazing, and then remind them of where to be and when. Check for required items like water, who will introduce you. Ensure that everyone is set for the session.

Panel Time

Make them shine

Moderating a panel is not about you. It's about making the panelists look good and sharing their stories. You are there to empower them to take the stage, set it for them, have the right examples at hand, and create the space for them to shine. Avoid giving your personal point of view. Instead, ask questions if there are other approaches, and if you want to make a point, have data at hand or a quote from another person.

Instincts

Panel time is all about being able to read the panelists and the energy in the room. It’s about the “Fingerspitzengefühl” - the feeling in your fingertips, loosely translated to ‘instinct’. When can you drill down into a pain or happy moment? When do you need to go slow and detailed? When do you need to add a plot-twist for the audience? (Always make sure the panelists are aware beforehand!). Take the time to look into the faces of the audience, to read their body language. It will tell you a lot about where to go next.

Hygiene 

Of course, mind panel ‘hygiene’ - keep time in check, reserve time for questions, have backup questions prepared for virtual audiences, and wrap up nicely, thanking your panelists and asking the audience for applause.

After the Panel

Show appreciation to the panelists and send a follow-up email the next day. Make it short and sweet, thanking the panelists for their participation. 

Don’t Forget: It’s REALLY not about you

With proper preparation and understanding your role, you can be a great moderator. It's essential to empower your panelists, help them shine, and make their stories count. Remember, it's not about you, it’s about your panelists and how well they are understood and received. Goodluck on your moderator journey!

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