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So, you’ve been asked to moderate a panel, and there’s just one problem – you have no idea how to moderate a panel.

Over the past couple of years, I have moderated numerous panels and one-on-one conversations. Each time, I learn a little more about the process. One common thread unites them all – unpredictability. The best conversations tend to arrive at unknown destinations (This is just a truism of life, right?). Embrace the inherent delta in the equation of moderating a panel and roll with it.

Below are my five keys to being an effective moderator. I would love to hear any tips that you have on this topic. Insert your thoughts in the comments section below.


1. I Bet You Think This Panel’s About You…But It Is Not


Lance Armstrong visits my leadership course in 2014.

Repeat after me: “This panel is not about me”. As a moderator your job is to set the table for your audience and panelists to enjoy a buffet of good conversation. Your job description involves: 1) making your panelists feel comfortable and 2) integrating the audience into the action. The audience should hear from you sparingly. Regardless of your comfort level with the topic, do not (for the love of God) subject attendees to a lecture. Your job is to tee up a good dialogue. Period.


2. Research. Research. Research.

Not only should you be knowledgeable about the topic, but you should also be knowledgeable about each of your panelists. As you research their biographies, reduce the text to ten short bulletpoints. These “talking points” are launchapds for you to refer to as the conversation unfolds. Always look for opportunities to connect a comment from one panelist to the bio from another.

For example, on a recent SXSW panel that I moderated, a NFL player mentioned the hassle of performing under the constant gaze of analytics personnel. I remembered that another panelist had a similar experience so I asked for a follow-up comment. That transition led to an unforeseen back-and-forth on surveillance and privacy. 


3. Engage the Audience Early and Often

To create maximum buy-in from the audience, get them involved early. I am not a fan of forcing a crowd to do any cheesy chants as an icebreaker, but I do subscribe to the “Ask a Key Question Early” philosophy. For example, at the beginning of a panel that I moderated on the topic of concussions, I kicked off the panel with a simple question to the crowd. “Who in the crowd has experienced a concussion? Raise your hand.” A few people raised their hands and this simple move helped to deflate some of the tension in the air. 


4. OMAHA! – Be Ready to Call An Audible

Peyton Manning, oh how we will miss your "Omaha's!"

Peyton Manning, oh how we will miss your “Omaha’s!”

Simply put, don’t be afraid to call an audible. If the action grinds to a halt or you feel as if the audience is drifting out to sea, pull them back in. Perhaps, you can take an informal poll. Or, you can ask for questions from the audience before the perfunctory Q&A period. Don’t be afraid to divorce convention and inject some energy into the room.


5. State the Rules of Engagement for Q&A – And then Enforce Them

This bland stock photo encapsulates the drudgery of the wayward questioner.

This bland stock photo encapsulates the excruciating pain imposed by the wayward questioner.

All of us have been forced to sit through a questioner who rises to pose a question. Five minutes later, the audience is still waiting for something that resembles a question mark. As the moderator, it is your God-given right (and duty) to force would-be questioners to ask actual questions. Put your foot down. For the love of humanity, just do it. The fate of the republic hinges on your bravery.

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