How to not suck at moderating a panel

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Moderating a panel should be easy. Instead of trying to make it perfect, just focus on not fucking it up and it will probably turn out great. Here’s how to not fuck it up:

Panelists

Choosing your panelists
Don’t overcomplicate this by trying to select a perfectly diverse panel. Just ask the best people you know on the topic. Forget about their age, gender…just pick the best people. If you don’t have a woman or a minority on your panel, that’s the industry’s fault – not yours. You want the best and brightest with literally no consideration given to demographic/socio-economic factors. That being said, if all things are equal between your choices, it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one woman on your panel (or if all female, then one man). Women think differently than men and add a valuable perspective to the conversation. Having women on your panel can also lead to more women in the audience.

How to ask them
Call them and ask verbally. It’s harder to say “no” on the phone. If you don’t have their number or you are too much of a coward to call them, then keep your email as short as possible:

“Hi Brad –
I’m moderating a panel about “Building Entrepreneur Communities” at SXSW. Given your upcoming book of the same topic and the role you’ve played building the community in Boulder, I’d be honored if you were to join the panel. The format is 45-minutes of conversation with the other panelists (which currently include [names of other panelists]) followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. I plan to keep it very casual. It’s on March 11th at 3:30 at SXSW in Austin. Let me know if you’re up for it.
Thanks,”

Make a list of questions to ask

    • Make a list of questions that you want to ask the panelsits during the event. You won’t actually be using this list during the panel – it’s just an exercise to get your thoughts out of your head so you think clearly.
    • If you can, try to incorporate at least one current event that’s relevant.
    • When you have a good list, paste them into an email in bullet format. Send this email to your panelists two weeks before the event. Here’s what your email says: “Here’s a list of questions I’m thinking about asking during the panel. Please look them over and write “yes” or “no” after each question in-line and shoot it back to me. Feel free to add any important questions you think I missed. I’ll send the final list after I hear back from the other panelists.” The point here is to make this process super simple for your panelists who are all busy people. Sending them the list in a Google Doc and saying “let me know what you think!” will make your panelists regret saying yes to your panel.

Promote it

    • Choose a hashtag
    • Create a place for it online – a post on your blog, facebook event, plancast – whatever you want. Keep the description short and focus on (1) the purpose of the panel and (1) what attendees can expect to learn by going. Make sure there’s an “add to iCal/Google Calendar” link.
    • Ask your panelists to write about the panel on their blog. Write a draft for them and give it to them in html format so they can copy/paste and tweak. Include a link to the event page.
    • Ask your panelists to tweet about it. Give them a pre-written tweet link so they just click and be done. Include the hashtag.
    • Send a personal email to your friends and ask them to go your panel. Also ask them to tweet about it.

Setup the room

    • Create a pop-up name plate for each panelists with only their last name written on it.
    • Have water for each panelist at their seat.
    • One microphone per panelist. Passing the mic sucks.
    • Don’t sit next to the panel – separate yourself a bit. Stand behind a podium. Hide most of your body. Make the audience’s eyes focus on the panel.
    • Put the panelists on a stage so the people in the back of the room can see.
    • Get a volunteer to stand at the door and welcome attendees as they enter the room. If you have a full room, this person will also help people find seats.
    • You don’t need a slideshow, but if you must – just have one slide:
      • title of the panel at the top
      • list of panelists in the center (two lines: name and company)
      • event hashtag at the bottom
      • make the font as big as possible

Moderate

Before the panel

    • The golden rule: Do not over-prepare.
    • Ask a friend/volunteer to live tweet the panel (using the hashtag). Also get them to take a few photos.
    • Before you go on stage, set a timer on your phone (which is on silent btw) for 15 minutes before the end of your session so you know when to begin Q&A
    • Look over the list questions you made previously but don’t try to memorize it.
    • If you are super worried that you will forget important stuff, make one (1) prompt card for yourself. Here’s one I used recently:

During the panel

    • Make it feel natural. The questions you ask should come to you naturally.  If a panelist begins to touch on a different topic that’s already on your list, cease that opportunity to transition. Say this: “Brad, I’m glad you brought up mentoring. How about we explore that a little more. What do you think about the role of mentoring in a startup community, and what makes a good mentor? Nick maybe you can start with this one.”
    • See what I did at the end there? Don’t just ask questions your questions to “the panel” – direct each question to a person and ask them to begin.
    • Look at the panelists. Literally turn your head sideways and stare at the panelists while they talk. This focuses the audience’s attention on the panelists instead of you.
    • If someone raises their hand in the middle of the panel and you’re feeling good about time, go ahead and invite the question. Audience participation is a good thing. Just be a prudent timekeeper and don’t feel obligated to call on everyone.
    • If a question goes long, don’t be afraid to cut it off. Here’s how to be nice about it: wait for a natural pause in the conversation and say simply “In the interest of time, let’s move to a new topic. Perhaps we can revisit this one during the Q&A.”
    • Yet, be flexible. If the panelists are going down a path and the audience seems to love it, let it happen.
    • Remain calm no matter what happens. If a panelist starts saying weird/inappropriate things, do what you’d do in any other casual conversation – let it happen for a short period of time but step in if it gets out of hand. If you step in, do not take a side. Just end it calmly “in the interest of time.” I had a panelist insult an audience member once. They debated for a good two minutes after that. It was dramatic, but it was interesting. The audience loved it. But when they started interrupting each other and the conversation was no longer valuable, I interrupted, made a small joke to ease the tension, then moved to the next topic.

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