What not to do when you moderate a panel

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Earlier this year I attended a live taping of a podcast. It was an enjoyable event, except for the panel discussion.

The panel became unhinged because the moderator got lost in a sea of their own notes, was underprepared and overwhelmed. Being in the audience watching this painfully play out reminded me how difficult it is to moderate a panel and do it well.

It’s a whole other skill set. Being a good presenter doesn’t automatically make you a skilled moderator. I see seasoned executives and experienced presenters struggling when it’s their turn to lead a panel.

Why is it so hard? I liken the moderator role as being part investigative journalist, part umpire. They must be skilled at thinking on their feet. They need to find a balance between going deeper on responses from the panelists, and acting as a referee between conflicting arguments or dominating panelists. All in front of a live audience. No wonder it’s not easy!

Here’s a list of the common mistakes I see panel moderators make most often:

  • No probing. Rather than diving deeper into a panelist’s response, they advance the conversation only by going through their list of pre-prepared questions. Good panel moderators are able to do both—probe for deeper responses and ask questions to move the discussion along.

  • Lack of preparation to understand the unique expertise of each person on the panel. Panelists are picked for a reason. A good panel moderator will know exactly why each panelist was chosen and what they can bring to the conversation.

  • Allowing soapboxing and verbose panelists. This gets back to the part umpire idea. The moderator has the power to cut off dominating panelists and encourage participation from every panel member.

  • Failing to extract the key messages. This is the gold standard for panel moderating. It’s perhaps the hardest task for a moderator. The best will paraphrase and summarize the key themes and ideas for the audience. They take pieces of the discussion and present it back to the audience in a meaningful way.

  • Wanting to be the star. A good moderator will account for a very small portion of what’s said on the stage. They should act as an invisible hand rather than the star of the show.

I have a newfound respect for people who interview and moderate discussions at the highest level. It’s a true skill.

For an even deeper dive on this, I recommend watching tapes of the best persons who made interviewing and moderating their life’s work. Look carefully at how they react, how they connect both with the persons on the stage and with the audience at the same time.

Suggested further reading:

https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-to-moderate-a-panel-discussion

https://guykawasaki.com/how_to_be_a_gre/