A call for moderation

Being a panel moderator is the hardest easy job in public speaking.

I’ve moderated, conservatively, more than one hundred panels over three decades (I started as a teen at science-fiction conventions). Aside from the aforementioned fan gatherings, there have been professional panels at events ranging from E3 Expo to technology industry conferences to book and education industry trade shows.

In the spirit of earlier tips for types of public speaking not everyone does, here are nine things you should know about being a good moderator, if you’re ever called to serve:

1. You’re the glue. Your mission as moderator is to create a coherent whole out of disparate, and sometimes feuding, parts. As a result, you should be the panel’s audience surrogate — asking for definitions of terms and clarification of statements which a panelist may state as though everyone knows about them. Many times, people attend panels to learn, so they may not.

2. You’re the metronome. You’re the panel’s biological timekeeper — you need to make sure the pace feels right to someone just sitting and listening and adjust that pace on the fly. Keep things moving.

3. You’re not the star. While a well-known moderator can be a draw, that’s before the event. The audience is there to learn from the panelists, not you. That doesn’t mean you should be passive and in the background (for your primary task, see 1). But there’s a difference between creating a center of discussion and being the center of attention. Whatever attention you draw needs to be with the intent of making sure the audience gets what they came for.

4. Demand a PowerPoint-free zone. Nothing squeezes the life out of a panel more than PowerPoint. Inevitably, panelists who don’t have time to prepare rely on making minor tweaks to a canned presentation, regardless of the new audience’s needs or interests. I hesitate to moderate panels if I can’t ban PowerPoint and, if I’m unsuccessful, I insist on no more than three slides that can’t include text (a single graphic is worth a thousand bullet points).

5. Stoke the fire. Don’t expect to wing it. Prepare a thought-provoking first question and circulate it among the panelists in advance, telling them they’ll have two minutes to address it in their own words, sans slides.

6. Don’t preview all your questions. Share areas you might like to discuss, but don’t share any specific questions in advance (aside from the one in 5), no matter how hard your panelists or their handlers press. I’ve discovered just about every person I’ve ever worked with is satisfied knowing the areas likely to be covered in general terms. If you share your specific questions, you’ll get boring, scripted specific answers — the perfect soporific for any audience.

7. Interrupt. Being overly polite and letting panelists drone on, or make unchallenged assertions is surrender, not moderation. Your audience isn’t the panelists; keeping them happy is secondary. Your audience is, well, the audience.

8. Touch base early. Send your panelists an introductory email outlining any ground rules, the opening question, areas of discussion, and the banning of PowerPoint (if you concur). Don’t forget the basics like time, date and venue. Then, arrange to meet 15 minutes early so the panelists show up on time.

9. Say thank you. Send your panelists personal emails or paper notes thanking them for participating. Even if it’s not your event or your organization, you were their ringmaster for 45, 60 or 90 minutes. No one gets upset over a thank you.

As I said, this is the hardest easy job in public speaking. Your goal is to make this appear effortless — so the audience itself doesn’t have to struggle.

(This essay originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s FrankCatalano.com blog.)