Moderating Panel Discussions

Moderating Panel Discussions

In a recent survey of 500 executives and meeting industry professionals, a whopping 63 percent believe the panel format is merely “okay”—or even worse—primarily because of moderator issues and out-of-control panelists. The results concede that when you have a skilled moderator and dynamic panelists, the panel format can be hugely effective for audience learning.

Considering the panel discussion format is pervasive at conferences and conventions, you have a huge opportunity to help your clients increase the effectiveness of their panel sessions. You can also differentiate yourself from other professional speakers by offering to moderate a panel discussion with the organization’s leadership, top performers or established experts after your presentation. You can offer to moderate a panel discussion of the main-stage speakers to tie the conference theme together. Do a Joe Calloway, CSP, CPAE, and integrate a 15-minute panel into your keynote. Revamp a popular television show into an edutainment format like Real Time with Scott McKain. Or do like Connie Podesta, CPAE, and bundle your keynote and breakouts with additional roles of awards banquet emcee, auctioneer and panel moderator.

However, there is one caveat to the panel strategy. As a panel moderator, you must refrain from being the sage on the stage to be the guide on the side. Be warned: Not all speakers can do this because their egos get in the way! You must shift your emphasis from being the expert on the topic to being the facilitator of the process to ensure audience members get their needs met through the panel format and the panelists have a lively and informative discussion that provides real, concrete takeaways. Many speakers believe moderating a panel is easy. After all, how hard can it be to ask a few questions and do an audience Q&A? Yes, it looks easy if you know what you’re doing, but many moderators either don’t have the skill or don’t prepare adequately. After all, being a panel moderator takes a few different roles and skills that you may or may not have in your speaker toolbox.

Do you have potential to be a panel moderator? Ask yourself if you excel in the following six roles:

1.       Champion for the Audience.

You make sure the panel is talking about timely issues that the audience cares about. Not what you care about, but what they care about. You do your homework, and you continually assesses and react to the audience during the session, keeping the conversation on track and meaningful for them.

2.       Facilitator.

You set the agenda, keep the discussions on track, bring out differing opinions and the most interesting information. You balance panelist participation, clarify any confusion and intervene as needed—especially when someone is dominating the conversation.

3.       Instigator.

As you facilitate the discussion, you probe beneath the surface, asking tough questions of the panel, building the dialogue, keeping the conversation lively and getting out of the way when the conversation is going well. You push the panelists to talk about specifics rather than speak in generalities—without feeling compelled to add your two cents.

4.       Objective and neutral party.

At this point in the program, the audience doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. They want to hear from the esteemed panelists. As the moderator, you need to withhold your own personal opinions and refrain from showing bias or favoritism toward any particular side, faction or person.

5.       Timekeeper.

You make sure the panel starts and ends on time and follows the time frames on the agenda. You also ensure the panelists don’t spend too much or too little time on any one single element.

6.       Energizer.

You model upbeat energy and enthusiasm, working the room and engaging the audience. You also inject a little humor where appropriate to keep it lively.

If you said “YES!” to all six roles, then offering to moderate a panel discussion for your clients may be a great option for you. However, before you hang out your “panel moderator” shingle to the meetings world, make sure you know how to moderate a lively and informative panel discussion, understand the specifics involved in moderating a panel (there are lots of moving parts!) and build your facilitation skills so that you can keep the panel on track and intervene firmly yet respectfully.

If you think panel moderation is a good fit for you and your business model, add this service as a separate line item on your fee schedule and when the subject of fees comes up, tell your clients that this service requires an additional investment. Then, it’s up to you how you want to negotiate that value. Stick to full fee, 50 percent discount or throw it in to tip the scales in your favor—especially if the panel comes right after your speech. Your clients are looking for something extra, something that sets you apart from others who have a similar topic or style. They want speakers who can do more for their group. Offering to moderate a panel just might be the difference between getting the engagement . . . or not.

Kristin Arnold

Kristin Arnold

President and Founder at The Extraordinary Team
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP, is a high-stakes meeting facilitator for those meetings you can’t afford to screw up—like strategic planning. Find out more at
Kristin Arnold
Kristin Arnold
Kristin Arnold

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