I can’t figure out if I’ve published this yet, but I came across it again. The formatting might be all messed up - who has the time?
I’ve moderated a lot of panels and “executive round tables” over the years, and been on many. Here’s my thinking for running them:
None of this is intended to be pedantic, or whatever. It’s just the things I think of when moderating a panel. As ever with my advice, it’s also driven by my personal aesthetics for content.
- You’re just there to ask questions, but including follow-up ones based on answers. The point is: you’re not the one answering the questions, don’t participate in the answers unless someone asks you to. Think of yourself as a proxy for the audience: what would they want to know?
- I like to take rhetorical ownership of the panel, like it was my idea and that I’m the one orchestrating this packaged thing for the audience. This both establishes your control over the whole thing (esp. audience management) and removes pressure from the panelists to do a good job. Also, it makes it more casual, in a counterintuitive way.
- Basic flow:
- Moderator welcomes everyone, thanks panelists for taking the time.
- Moderator then explains the topic of the panel, e.g., “today I wanted to have these three tell us about their organization’s digital transformation programs. One has just started, and two are a couple of years in it.”
- Tell the audience what you hope they’ll get out of it, this primes them to pay attention for those details and think of questions (if there’s time or Q&A), e.g., “so what I’m hoping is that you’ll get a sense of what these folks did, what worked and didn’t, and a good start for figuring out how you can navigate through a couple years of big change.”
- Ask the panelists to BRIEFLY introduce themselves. I can’t ever remember people’s names or how to pronounce them and often goof it up, so I always have other people introduce themselves. Also, tell them ahead of time to be very brief in their intro (only name and title is really best): no one cares about their details, to be frank - they probably know who they are, or don’t care. When you prompt the panelists, repeat your instructions directly, “now, please BRIEFLY introduce yourself.”
- Most people like to know questions ahead of time, so stick to those if they do.
- You’re not there to trap them, this isn’t you interviewing a politician. The questions should prompt them to tell the audience interesting, helpful things.
- If you don’t understand the answer (or if it was business-speak word salad), the audience probably didn’t either. Ask a follow up question about a specific detail, e.g., “you said that you launched your digital transformation strategy to respond to rapidly evolving market changes…what were some of those changes?”
- Often, you’ll have had an interesting conversation during prep meetings or otherwise. Instead of coming up with some question to evoke it again, simply ask the panelists to go over it again. For example: “a little while ago, we were talking about the difference between ‘bread’ and ‘pizza.’ You had some great thoughts: can you go over those?”
- Order your questions in this general way:
1. Overview of topic, e.g., “so tell me why you decided to kick off two years of digital transformation - what was going on at your organization at the time?”
2. How the panelists did the thing: what tactics did they learn, what lessons were learned, what didn’t work.
3. Questions on specific topics, e.g., “how did you handle audit and compliance?” or “how did you get resistant people to go along with the change?”
4. Subject questions about what they thought about the experience - how did they manage their involvement on it all.
5. Personal life questions, e.g., “what’s a good book you’ve read?”
- The idea is that you order questions with the most interesting/important first, and then less important ones last. That way, you can cut the less important ones out for time, but have them ready if you need them.
- Allow about 5 minutes per 30 minutes for audience questions, i.e., 10 minutes for an hour or 45 minute panel.
- Try to end on time, even if this means ending, e.g., 3 minutes early because you know one more question will be five minutes more.
- When done, thank the panelists for participating and thank the audience for the opportunity to have a discussion with them.
- Once the panel is over, if audience members come up to the stage to ask panelists questions, try to get out of the way of the next speaker.
- Try to arrange any “well, first I’d like to say…” answers the panelists want to do ahead of time. Otherwise, the panelists will do the annoying thing where you ask your first question, and they say, “well, first I’d like to talk about our company’s last quarterly results…” and then they might get to your question. If they want to give a little speech, ask them if there’s anything they’d like you to ask them ahead of time to clear that out.
- Who to call on - try to call on each panelist an equal amount. That said, it’s totally cool to ask a specific question of just one panelist - often, it’s a missed opportunity if you don’t! E.g., if you had a founding executive on a panel, asking them about the early days and how they got through it would be interesting; or asking how they preserved (or decided they needed to change!) the company culture as it grew.
- Managing audience questions:
- If there is no mic, summarize and repeat the question.
- Try not to let the same person ask more than one question…unless no one else is asking them.
- It’s OK to cut people off, there’s more than just them in the audience. You should be the rude one instead of the panelists.
- Personally, and I know this is priggish, I think it’s very rare to get good audience questions, so I don’t prioritize them. Also, feel free to restate and make more interesting audience questions as well, e.g., “that’s a good question, and if I could add a little bit to it…”
- Dealing with panelists - most of the time, panelists are kind and polite. Sometimes, though…
- If the panelists end up being combative, or bored, let them embarrass themselves. Your job is not to make them look good: if they’re jerks or bores, that’s what the audience will “learn” from them. Try to focus more time on the other panelists.
- Panelists will often want to hop on other people’s questions, e.g., “if I could just add one thing…” In general, this is often better than not, so let them. However, if you’re running out of time and have a question left you really want to ask, say something like, “sure, but please keep it brief because I have one more important question and I want to try to leave time for the audience to ask questions.”
- Sometimes, panelists will disagree and argue with each other. (There’s even some people who think that a panel without an argument is boring - they’re usually obnoxious individuals, so avoid them at the cocktail party afterwards.) This is generally OK, but once again don’t let it go too long and invoke the need to save time to allow for audience questions again to cut them short.
- Often, when I’m at maximum interest level, I tell the panelists ahead of time that I’d love for them to ask each other questions, and elaborate on answers from others. I directly tell them this OK and ask them to it so it’s not ambiguous.
- If the panel is going poorly, open it up for audience questions. This will add some randomness to the thing and take the focus off you to make things interesting. Hopefully the audience will have questions that evoke more interesting answers. That said, be ready with plenty of questions if there are no audience questions.
- As you can see, when you have to be aggressive, it’s handy to hide behind the audience. You have the panelists in front of a group of people, and you can gently allude that the mob will go all pitchfork on the panelists if they don’t respect the audience; the panelists won’t care as much, or at all, about you.
- Your own head:
- Being a panelist is the easiest type of public speaking. You just answer questions! Moderating a panel is one of the hardest because you can’t just make things up on your own as needed: you have the panelists, the audience, and yourself to deal with.
- But it’ll be fine! Preparation is what’s key.
- Write down a bunch of questions - that way, you don’t have to think of them, you can look down at your notes.
- I have varying thoughts about prep calls and work with the panelists. If you’re really trying to craft the content and fit it into a small time, I would send them the questions ahead of time and maybe ask them what they think the answers might be. This will prompt them to think ahead of time and hopefully get detailed but brief. On the other hand, personally, I really value catching people cold and hearing them walk through their ideas. More than likely you’ll do some preparation with them - very few people are cool with just jumping into it cold.
- Oh! Have I mentioned that it’s totally OK to have and use a bunch of notes? In fact, you really should. You can even read them! Unlike a talk, where I like to maintain the illusion of spontaneity and not use notes, moderating a panel is the opposite: again, the point is to be a proxy for the audience, not yourself, so using notes actually helps ensure this.
- Watch/read previous panels and interview the panelists . This will give you a sense of how they react, how to handle them to get good answers, and you can even steal questions from other panels. You don’t need to be original, most of the audience will not have seen any past interviews with the person.
- Don’t ever talk about being nervous, this being your first time, or any meta commentary about your own performance.
- If you find yourself being nervous, slow your mind down and listen to what the panelists are saying, work on rewording in your mind what they’re saying as a trick to focus and actively listen. There’s really no reason to be nervous.
- Let yourself have fun. These are interesting people who have things to say - otherwise they wouldn’t have been asked to be on a panel or agreed to do so. Think of yourself as learning and discovering things from them. At the very least, you’ll get a leg up on getting to know them because you’ll have jumped over bullshit small talk topics with them, and can talk in more detail afterwards.
- It’s fun!