Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

How to Moderate a Panel

With SXSW fresh in mind and Web 2.0 on the way, I wanted to take a moment to jot down what I think makes for a great panel discussion. I’ve been on, and moderated, a few panels in the last 10 years, so I think I’ve earned the right to have an opinion about what makes a good one. And, in my experience, it all comes down to the moderator.

So if you’re going to moderate a panel, here are a few bits of unsolicited advice for you.

  1. Do Your Homework.
    It’s your job to direct the conversation from one person to another, depending on their expertise. You simply cannot do that if you don’t know the people on your panel. Take the time to learn about them. Read their sites, their books, their bios. Call them on the phone. Google their asses. And then show how much you learned by asking each of them very-specific questions. “As you wrote in your book…”
  2. You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Panel’s About You
    With apologies to Carly Simon, you have to remember that the panel is not about you. If you’ve got a lot to say about the topic, cool, tell the conference organizer that you should be on the panel instead of moderating it. As the moderator, it’s not your job to answer questions. You’re the conduit for the audience. Put your ego aside and let your panelists shine.
  3. Do Not Have The Panel Prematurely
    Here’s where I go against conventional wisdom. Do not get everyone together beforehand. Do not have breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Do not start an email thread and make everyone participate. All this does is rob the panel of any spontaneity. Your panelists learn very quickly where the hot buttons are, and will avoid them later, which makes for a boring panel. And when the audience hears a panelist say, “Well, as we were discussing earlier …” it just makes them feel like they missed the good part. Like I said earlier, it’s good (and should be required) for you to talk to your panelists beforehand, just avoid making them talk to each other.
  4. Limit Introductions.
    If you let them, your panelists will talk about themselves for hours. Don’t let them. Force an arbitrary time limit to their intros. Don’t skip them – they tell the audience why these people are on stage – but force them to brief. Tell the panelists they get 60 seconds exactly, and interrupt them if they go to long. Bring a stopwatch and make it a game – the audience will love it.
  5. Encourage Conversation.
    This should be obvious, but so often it’s not. Too many panels divide the time up into a few little presentations. Instead of a dynamic conversation, the audience gets a series of slideshows. Boring! Instead, encourage the panelists to respond to each other. When one panelist makes a point, ask the other panelists what they think. If you know that one of them disagrees (see: “Do Your Homework”), point that out. Don’t be afraid of disagreement! Smart people disagree all the time. That’s part of the fun.
  6. Be a Jerk.
    This is perhaps the hardest part. Remember that, as the moderator, you are the audience’s chief advocate. Oft times, we moderators want to cozy up to the panelists because they’re so smart and good looking. But it’s the audience we should be kissing up to – they’re why you’re here. So if a panelist is going on too long, cut them off. If someone’s boring you, they’re probably boring the audience, too, so turn the attention to someone else. If an audience member asks a dumb question, rephrase it into something more interesting for your panel. Sometimes this means being a jerk. But if it makes for a more interesting panel, so be it.
  7. Surf So They Don’t Have To.
    Too many computers build a wall between you and the audience. If everyone on the panel has a laptop open, their eyes will be on their screens instead of the audience. Instead, use just one computer, hooked to a screen, and make it your computer. As your panelists speak, bring up their sites as examples of what they’re talking about. This way they don’t have to stop talking (“lemme just bring up the site … hm … not used to this keyboard…”). It can also be entertaining to the audience to watch you surf while the panelists talk.
  8. Panels should be dynamic, entertaining, funny, and brave. If you treat your panel like a lecture, your audience will act like bored students. But treat your panel like a performance and your audience will be grateful. You might even get a standing ovation.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.