How to moderate a great panel discussion

I’m going to be moderating a panel discussion at the Dad 2.0 Summit entitled Show ‘Em You Mean Business and as part of preparing for the panel, I’ve been thinking about what makes a really great panel discussion at a conference and what, by contrast, produces one that’s a boring snoozefest where people are all quickly distracted by their smartphones and the free coffee in the lobby.

The result are my recommendations based on moderating and participating in dozens and dozens of panels at a wide variety of business and technical conferences.

Disagree with each other! 
This first recommendation I have for panelists might sound odd, but if you’ve ever attended a roundtable-style discussion you’ll know what I mean. Look at it this way: is there anything more boring than “I agree with Sue.” or “I have nothing to add”?
Obviously, it’s not a reality show, we don’t need to artificially add drama and conflict, but if one of the other panelists says something that’s not consistent with your own view or perspective, call them out on it and have an animated discussion — or even an argument — about the topic. It’ll instantly wake people up and enliven the discussion.
boring panel
When you’re not speaking, remain interested and alert
Look at the photo above. Do the other panelists look like they’re interested in what the speaker is sharing with the audience? Yeah, not so much. And if the panelists are bored and zoning out, how can you expect the audience to remain alert and attentive?
I realize this can be a challenge if everyone on the panel agrees with each other. I mean, when one panelist is just droning on for five minutes about how wonderful their product is it’s astonishingly difficult not to drift, drift, drift away. But think about the audience. Aren’t they in the same boat?  So interrupt!
Or, better, prep the moderator to be comfortable interrupting, challenging points, or even teasing the panelists about sales pitches (a total no-no) or other information that’s uninteresting.
Which reminds me of the next point…
Never pitch from the stage. 
I don’t care if you’re the moderator or a panelist, it’s incredibly rare for someone to attend a panel discussion at a conference and want to hear a sales pitch. Maybe one out of a hundred. Maybe less. Whatever the case, I always warn panelists that they darn well better not pitch their company or service and if I do find that they’re selling from the stage, I will interrupt them and move the topic along. It’s really one of the worst sins a panel can commit and in my opinion that’s one of the greatest challenges of the moderator, to keep things fresh, lively and non-commercial.
And speaking of the moderator, I’ll also say that I think they should play a pivotal role in the success of a panel and I definitely see myself as the director of the panel, with no compunction about interrupting, changing the direction of the conversation, bringing up new topics and even adding my own opinion or insight on a topic. Moderators shouldn’t be timekeepers, they should be an integral part of the conversation, chosen because they’re also subject-matter experts.
laughing panelists
Have fun on stage
This is the panel version of my public speaking mantra that an audience takes away the energy that the person or people on stage has while speaking. If you’re all boring, if you’re all reserved, if you’re too serious, then the panel will be a drag and people will remember it as heavy and self-important. Have some fun, share a joke, or gently tease each other and each time the audience laughs you’ve opened them up just a bit more to actually getting the message and gaining some value from their attendance. And isn’t that the goal?
Look at the photo above. Don’t you want to know what just transpired to cause them to laugh so openly and enthusiastically?
Be prepared
None of the above should negate that the best panels are those where the panelists have met beforehand, have discussed the topic and how they want to approach it, and understand each other’s position and expertise. Ideally, panelists should also have sent pithy questions to the moderator beforehand, so that if there’s a lull in the conversation new topics can be introduced in a smart and thoughtful way.
I enjoy both being on panels and moderating panels, and have experienced quite a variety of discussion panels and roundtable chats from the audience perspective too. It’s not hard to make them great conversations of experts with input and commentary from the audience, but it’s not magic. Some preparation, some understanding of each other’s perspective, and a little sense of humor can go a long way to ensuring that your panel stands out as a highlight of the conference or workshop.

7 comments on “How to moderate a great panel discussion

  1. My favorite of your suggestions is to be prepared not just as an individual, but as a group. Your advice I’m betting is good for any situation where more than one person will be sharing a platform.
    In fact, I’m betting rehersal is especially important if the information being given is a podcast of two or more people sharing information using a phone or Skype.

  2. Would love to hear some tips on moderating online panel discussions, with it proving difficult to plan everyone being in the same building at any one time, having used Skype in the past, we have now moved on to Google+ Huddle, and finding it very effective. Thank you

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  4. There are quite a variety of ways that panel discussions can function effectively. This post is helpful in reminding one of this.

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