Having attended, at this point, easily over a hundred panels in the last 5 years, I definitely have opinions. And there is one role that can make or break a panel.
Whether you’re a writer guest-of-honor on a panel at a convention, or just hosting a dinner party, being a good moderator is highly underrated skill.
My favorite panels are where the big names are friendly and informative, and the smaller names are confident with their answers — without anyone talking over each other.
In the titular panel, Barbara Krasnoff, Grig Larson, DH Aire, Jennifer Povey, and Jazmine Cosplays, moderated by… Um. I think it was Barbara, but really? It was the most polite and self-moderated example of a panel I’ve ever watched.
How To Prepare To Moderate
When you sign up to be a panelist, or you’re asked to be one, pay attention when you get your schedule. If you’ve got that big ‘M’ in parenthesis, you’ve been selected as the panel moderator. Which means, you don’t have to know everything about the topic, you just have to make sure your panelists share everything they know.
- Read up on both your topic and your fellow panelists.
- Prepare open-ended topical questions
- Read the panel description — sometimes it gives you all you need for discussion questions!
- If you get fellow panelist emails, reach out and coordinate
- Ask them what questions they’d like to be asked
- If there are identity sensitive questions, give them a heads up
- Pay attention if there are tangents they ask to avoid
- Decide if you want to give introductions for the panelists, or make them introduce themselves.
How To Guide The Conversation
There are panels that basically run themselves. The panelists are solid on the topic, friendly and gracious at taking their turns, and make a lot of fascinating points. Other times? The conversation could use some… guidance.
- Know who the audience is here to see — if there is a big name, or subject matter expert, you might let them talk a little longer.
- Make sure everyone gets a turn. If someone is going on a bit, redirect.
- If you think you might have a chatty panelist or two, feel free to inform the panelists of a time limit on answers during the introduction phase.
- Ask leading questions
- You want to make the panelists look good!
- You can use leading questions to get back on topic, after a tangent
- NOTE! If the audience is looking interested in the tangent, you can let it go a little.
- Watch the panelists, if they seem to perk up at something another panelist is saying, take note of that and come back to them, especially if they haven’t been dominating the conversation.
- A difference of opinions is more interesting than everyone in agreement — as long as it’s a case of personal preference and not a personal attack.
- If the panel conversation seems to run dry, or the topic was too obscure, let the conversation veer. Especially when it’s engaging the audience.
- Save 10 minutes at the end for a Question and Answer period. And don’t hesitate to open the floor for questions early if the conversation has ground to a halt.
- If the audience is huge, try to leave extra time for the Q&A, and be apologetic if you can’t hit them all.
- The last 2 minutes should be for the panelists to give closing thoughts… and do their book/social media plugs.
- If you run out of time, you can always offer for people to send their questions to you on social media — assuming the panelists are open to answering more questions.
How To Shut Up Panelists
Some panelists love to hear themselves talk, others talk a lot when nervous, and others are so excited about the topic they’re just overflowing with things to say. But. A panel isn’t a monologue, and sometimes you’ve just got to move the conversation along. Or, a panelist might be working their way toward embarrassing themselves, or getting a little too worked up.
Some things to say to redirect the conversation
- “Thank you, SPEAKER. QUIET-PANELIST, what did you think of what SPEAKER just said?”
- “Thank you. Let’s give OTHER-PANELIST a chance to answer the question.”
- “I’m gonna have to stop you there. Our time is getting short.”
- “Now, it’s time to move on to NEXT-PANELIST.”
- “That’s a great topic. I’m going to suggest it for a panel next year.”
- “Oh hey, I think someone in the audience had a question.”
How To Moderate The Audience
Sometimes, the ones you need to watch out for aren’t even on the panel themselves, (although, some think they should be, and some may have been excellent additions).
- Be firm. The rest of the audience is here to see the panelists, not listen to the audience. When you open the floor for questions, be sure to let them know, “Questions only, no statements.”
- If they’re rambling, cut in. “Do you have a question in there?”
- You can use that, “That’s a great topic for a panel. You should suggest it for next year.”
- If there’s not quite a question, and you need to take the floor away from them: “Does anyone want to address that?”
- If an audience member crosses a line — either by repeatedly ignoring your requests, or saying something beyond the pale, you can kick them out. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” And just wait, or ask someone near the door to call for security, if they leave willingly.
What NOT To Do!
Now, the panel didn’t go into this, too much. But, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in panels. I think we can find the rest of the answers from looking at, let’s call it, the negative space in the tips above.
The top 9 ways to be a horrible moderator
- Let it tangent off-topic, with an irritated audience, while there’s plenty of topic left to cover
- Don’t let the audience ask questions
- Treat the panel as your platform, with the other panelists as supporting characters
- Single out one panelist based on their identity, and make them speak for all people of their race/gender/ability/etc
- Share any fellow panelist contact info you have, publicly
- Let people talk over each other
- Tell people their opinions are wrong
- Let the audience or panelists bash each other
- Spew hateful rhetoric
A good panel is informative, entertaining, and friendly. If you stay in this industry, it’s likely that you’re going to see these people on future panels. If you moderate panels that people enjoy participating in and/or attending, it’s likely they’ll look forward to being on panels with you in the future.