How to Moderate a Panel

Know what to do and what to avoid with these 11 tips for successfully moderating a panel.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #166

I just love modesty!! No, I don't. I hate modesty. I also hate arrogance, but modesty is terrible, because it means we never get to learn how awesome people are. Europa, a consummate businesswoman, complains about this a lot. "If I don't know how awesome people are, how can I properly exploit them?" Europa, you go, girl!

How to Moderate a Panel

Last week, I attended a panel on attention deficit disorder. The moderator—we’ll call her Gladys—was a therapist who threw modesty to the wind. She proclaimed her skill at helping ADD folk. We leaned forward, eagerly anticipating a transcendental experience.

Well, her skill seems to be changing topics faster than her A.D.D. clients. She changes topics every sentence. Her clients probably cure themselves out of sheer frustration. I’m polite. I didn’t scream, "Finish your thought!" Fortunately, some people weren't polite. As they left, they yelled out, "We have A.D.D. and we can't even keep up with you!" See? Cured! My dear, sweet, talented, ambitious, well-meaning Gladys, this article is for you.

A while back, I taught you how to run an awards dinner. Fortunately, having no modesty myself, I must confess that I'm a darned good moderator. Today, let’s learn how to moderate a panel discussion.


How to Be a Good Moderator

A good moderator works much less and does much more. The best moderators seem invisible to the audience, yet they are in absolute control. Like any good evil overlord. (Stop laughing, Europa.)

Here are my rules for being a great moderator:


11 Tips for Moderating a Panel

#1: Know your job! Your job as moderator is to help the audience get their needs met via the panel's discussion. Before you begin, make sure that you know what the audience expects. If your panel is "Pros and Cons of World Domination" featuring six mad scientists who also have a variety of other interests, your job is to meet the audience's need for World Domination information. Even successful panels sometimes wander off topic. You must be ever-vigilant about keeping things relevant.

#2: Prepare the physical environment in advance. Make sure everyone has a nameplate that's visible from the audience. Make sure everyone has a full glass of water at hand. Know where the microphones are and how far they reach. I moderated a 20-person panel that had one microphone, on a cord, that had to be passed along every time someone wanted to speak. It was a horror show.

#3: Know your timing and keep to it! Plan the time for Q&A, introductions, and panel remarks! If you have a 1-hour panel with 5 panelists and 20 minutes of Q&A, each panelist can talk for roughly eight minutes. If a panelist is going on and on about the electricity costs needed to reanimate a Frankenstein monster, gently interrupt and assure them that you can return to discussing electricity costs later in the panel. Since your job is to keep the topic on World Domination, don't go back to the electricity topic. Yes, you just told a little white lie to your panelist. You've done it before. And if you say "No, I haven't," you're doing it now.

#4: Don't read panelist bios. It takes too long and no one cares. The bios were in the program, and everyone read the program. That's why they showed up. If you must, give one or two credibility-building points that show why the panelists know about the topic at hand. Don’t mention unrelated awards, even if they’re impressive. And under no circumstances should you ever repeat what's in the program. It makes you look foolish, like you did no preparation other than reading the program. It wastes the audience's time, and it annoys the panelists. These are mad scientists. You don't want to annoy them. This panel isn't about their past, it's to showcase their current brilliance. Let their contribution to the panel speak for itself.

The audience is there to see you be a moderator, not a panelist.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.