Part 1 of my post on How to Moderate a Conference Panel focused on steps you might take prior to the day of the panel session itself -- recruiting speakers, communicating with them, extracting the information you need, planning and running a conference call, and the like.
Part 2 focuses on some techniques and insights aimed at conducting the session itself. We've all experienced bad panel sessions. Nine times out of ten, the problem is with the moderator who is either too lazy to shape the experience on behalf of the audience. He may be a superstar figure within the industry, and is just too busy to prepare. Or perhaps it's the all-too-common assumption that the attraction is the speakers, and the moderator's job is to "let them speak." Au contraire. The moderator's job, in my opinion, is to craft a story out of the bits and pieces of talk and presentation that fill the typical 60 to 90 minute conference panel. How?
Moderator as Narrator. I used to make documentary films, most of which were of the “verite” style in which the story unfolded without a narrator. This is hard to do well. The audience likes some help. This is also true at conferences, where, let’s face it, the audience may be paying even less attention to your content than they would be at a theatre. Just as the narrator is a guide for the documentary audience, providing context, information, and moving the story along, so too is the moderator the guide for the conference panel audience. It’s true, the “story” is rarely as dramatic or compelling as a film or a novel. Often a conference topic will focus on the nitty-gritty business of our field. But there is a “story” in every panel, if you look for it. And by doing so, your audience will think you are brilliant. How? Here are some simple tips:
- Tell them what your panelists are going to say, remind them each time a new speaker begins his/her presentation, summarize what was just said, and wrap up the story with a personal lesson you have learned.
Note: This is my reinterpretation of a tip I got a long time ago when I started moderating panels at NATPE — the National Association of Television Programming Executives. Back in the day, if you were on a NATPE panel, you received “The Really Useful Hand-Dandy Moderator’s & Panelist’s Handbook.” Beth Braen, NATPE’s Senior Vice President Marketing, told me this morning that NATPE plans to update the handbook and post it to their online speaker and FAQ sections. Some other tips:
Start on time, end on time. On the day of the panel, whether you have a pre-panel gathering or not, it is your responsibility as the moderator to get people on the platform, ready to start on time. This is a courtesy to the audience, and will make you popular with the conference coordinator, too! If you have a latecomer on your panel, tough noogies, start anyway.
Introductions. Introduce yourself quickly, and then your panelists, using a simple title and then adding what each speaker will focus upon. This is the beginning of your narration. (Do NOT repeat what may already be printed in the conference brochure.)
Timing. You’ve already decided in advance the maximum amount of time each speaker has been allotted. You may reiterate this in your remarks, so the audience knows what’s coming, and as a reminder for each speaker. Keep a stop watch (which most phones have now) going, and be firm about ending each segment.
Moderator Questions. As each speaker goes through their shtick, formulate a question or two, derived from what they actually said. Make notes! What is missing? What should they be covering? What are the implications? Did they make news in something they said? By customizing a question tailored to each speaker, you help the audience understand their unique contribution, and also avoid that dreaded panel process of going down the row with the same question. No question needs five answers. Sometimes two or more panelists are on different sides of an issue. This gives me a chance to let them mix it up directly. Key point here is: tailor and focus your questions.
You’re a surrogate for the audience. Another role you play is surrogate audience member, especially true with a big audience. I will often ask for a show of hands at the beginning of the session to help my speakers (and myself) understand the types of folks in the audience. The focus of your questions will be quite different, for example, if the majority of attendees are producers, or engineers, or lawyers, or investors. Etc.
A note about self-promotion. Nobody speaks at an industry conference with entirely altruistic motives. We all want to bring attention to ourselves, to our companies, to our product or service. As moderator, you can help your speakers to achieve this goal by impressing upon them how truly dreadful a panel can be when its members do nothing but sell and promote. You are indeed the stand-in for the audience, which can tolerate only slight commercial crapola before they will rebel, often by getting up and leaving. Unless your speaker is making a newsworthy announcement about his/her company during your panel, the focus should be on the TOPIC.
As a reward for your panelists’ good behavior, the moderator can use cleverly worded questions to allow panelists to shine. For instance at my Digital Hollywood panel, as I went down the table with my customized question, I also invited each speaker to provide a “success story” that one of their clients, customers, or users had experienced. This provides good, user-oriented information while still highlighting the value of each speaker's company.
Audience Q&A. You’ll want to wrap up your own questions and the panel discussion in time for audience questions, as well as a final summary. Don’t cheat the audience. They are paying (usually) and they rightly expect to have some chance at access to your experts. That said, it’s also true that not all audience questions are worth answering. Regardless of the “quality” of the question, you can control the flow of the discussion by restating or simply repeating the question, and then directing it to a panelist to answer. If you’re good at it, you can make a weak question better than it is.
You must be vigilant in managing the Q&A. Don’t let people make speeches — cut them off politely. If the question is not directed at a particular person, after you summarize it, you should pick a single person to answer, using your intuition and sense of fairness. As the end approaches, warn the audience that you have time for one or two more questions.
Summarize. In my experience, the summary you provide for the panel will make it more memorable than any other single action. You help folks remember what happened, validate the speakers' contributions, and, most importantly, finish off your narrative -- complete the story. You also demonstrate a degree of mastery that will stick in the minds of many.
Your task is to compose and deliver a distillation of a session (maybe 60-90 minutes) in real-time. This is challenging, because you're busy the whole time. I find that the easiest way to summarize is simply to personalize your response. As the audience surrogate, share what you heard, what you learned, and why it’s important to the field. A sentence or two for each speaker will suffice. What’s more important is your conclusion, delivered with conviction that the experience you just shared was valuable.
Thank you’s. BTW, I send an individualized note to each speaker on my panel, and anyone who helped me with the logistics, as well as the conference coordinator. Sounds corny but it's usually appreciated.
In closing, I return to the hotel lobby with my two friends. After tossing about our opinions on moderating panels, I got ready to leave, but was stopped by Ms. Parker’s one liner: “I’ve mastered the art of moderating panels. Now I have to master the art of getting paid for it.” It’s true, this is one thankless task. We do it to maintain our profile within the industry, to create visibility for ourselves or our companies, to get clients, and, sometimes, to learn about a new subject. But we don’t do it to get rich.
“That’s called ‘facilitating,’” said Ms. Tamer, my other friend. “People hire facilitators, not moderators.” That’s a subject for a future post.