9 Tips for Moderating Panels that WOW Attendees

Moderating a panel at a conference is an art and science.  A bit too much art and the session is hollow. A bit too much science and the thought leaders on your panel drift into the open ocean.  Attendees are king and queen, demanding more of a ping pong match than a dissertation or self promotion from each panelist.

All this got me thinking about hosting panels at conferences, after moderating a few at the recent Content Marketing Conference.

Panels bring together a group of experts and a moderator to dive deep into a hot topic. The diverse backgrounds, personalities and skill sets of the panelists usually make for a highly entertaining and lively forum.

If you’re moderating a panel, you’ll need to study up on the topic and have a knack for conversation. Here are a few more tips I learned from hosting three panels at #CMC16 a few weeks ago.

1. Topic Selection

It’s all about the topic and the value to the conference attendee when it comes to moderating a panel.  A great moderator selects topics they know will resonate well with the audience. The other topics and sessions need to come into play, sorting out the weaknesses that you can cover in a panel.  Avoid topics that are too broad and choose a topic that fits with the experience of the panelists you have in mind.

2. Panel Selection

After you’ve lined up the topic that will WOW the crowd, it should be easy for you to find and recruit speakers to join your panel, and share their insights with the audience.

3. Motivating Speakers

The key to motivating panelist is to be sure you select speakers that can truly “shine” on the topic and jive with the other panelists.  This starts with the language you use on your introduction email and the confirmation email once they jump on board.

4. Question Selection

Preload your questions to panelists. Explain to your panel that your role as the moderator is to make them shine by having them submit three to five questions about the topic that they have amazing answers for. You can vet this process with each of them, one-on-one, to be sure their answers will WOW the crowd. Allow a few weeks of back and forth for this part of the process, as the moderator needs to be sure the questions fit each speaker and the overall goals for the attendees.

5. Group Huddle

Gathering the panelists before the session is key to making the panel sing well together, either by phone or in person.  It will help them all learn what questions the other panelists are answering and avoid duplicate answers, which are a real buzz kill for the audience.

6. Ping Pong Match

From the audience perspective, it’s a lot more fun to watch a ping pong match than long, rambling answers that are repetitive.  Encourage your speakers to keep their answers to one minute or less, with a followup question from you that helps dive deeper into the topic, if appropriate.  Bite-size suggestions are much more enjoyable and, by the way, much more “socially distributed” by the attendees. Coach your panelists on this opportunity.

7.  Storytelling

Short, tight stories will be remembered and shared. Panelists should come to the session prepared to tell some stories that are relevant to the topic and have the core elements of great storytelling.

8. Avoid the Sales Pitch

Once a panelist pitches his or her book, company or even personal website, the audience instantly turns off and tunes out. Instead, do this necessary evil for each of the panelists to help them get off on the right foot and make the right impression on the audience.

9. Tactics and Advice

In the end, the session is only as good as the value of information the attendees learned.  Be sure each speaker is “responsible” for certain tips, advice and insights. It’s your job as a moderator to make them accountable, make them look great, and make them perform well by asking questions that surface their knowledge.

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