The panel discussion was invented by someone who liked to sit three feet above his audience, talk with five of his closest friends for an hour, and barely acknowledge that there are 100 other people in the room, usually sitting in uncomfortable chairs.
But until the panel discussion disappears from the agendas of conferences and networking events, you may be asked to moderate one. Lucky for you, the bar is very, very low. If you can find a way to deliver a few fleeting moments of entertainment or interaction, you will be regarded as a rock star. If you can toss in some insight and controversy, they may erect a statue of you at the convention center.
I’ve moderated more than 300 panel discussions at events like the Consumer Electronics Show, the Sundance Film Festival, and various Harvard Business School conferences. Here are a dozen guidelines to put you on the right track when you’re tapped to run a panel.
Don’t prep with your panelists. Many moderators imagine they are running a Congressional hearing, not a panel discussion. They hold pre-panel conference calls, and write lengthy e-mails back and forth hashing out the terrain each speaker intends to cover. Avoid that as much as possible. Your goal is to be a group of smart, funny people on-stage having a dynamic conversation. That doesn’t mean that you as a moderator shouldn’t research your panelists and their work so that you can come up with appropriate questions. My advice is to send your panelists a single pre-event e-mail, listing three questions you plan to open with, and asking them if there are any other issues they think are important to cover. At the event, socialize with your panelists and make sure everyone has met one another, but resist the urge to talk about what you’re going to talk about on-stage.
Sit with your panelists. It’s just not possible to run a good panel discussion by standing at the podium. Sit in the middle of your panelists, so you can easily make eye contact, and if needed, tap someone long-winded on the elbow and say, “Janet, those are fascinating examples, but can we get Bill’s take on this topic?”
Moderators can’t also be panelists. Just as an orchestra conductor would never whip out his viola to play a solo, your job is to encourage your panelists to give great performances. Once you start chiming in or rebutting panelists, the balance gets thrown off. You just can’t play both roles at once. (And just as a conductor would, you also need to be firm about not letting certain panelists dominate the discussion.)
No slides. Letting panelists show slides is almost certain death, and it radically reduces the role of the moderator. Exceptions: If panelists are talking about a visual topic, like retail store design, you can let each speaker bring the same number of example photos to show. If speakers are movie directors, letting everyone show a clip from their latest film, of a similar length, is fine. But letting speakers bring PowerPoints will usually gobble up your time and prevent any kind of interesting interactions from happening.
State your objective at the outset. Don’t write a long-winded introduction. Two sentences will do. Why is this topic important now, and what do you hope to accomplish within the next hour. “With all of the publicity around Google Glass, everyone is thinking about wearable computing. Our objective with our time today is to share some of the thinking about how wearable displays like Glass will change the way we interact with others.”
Never let the panelists introduce themselves. That’s the moderator’s job. Be as brief as you can, especially if the audience is holding a program guide with lengthier bios in it. Three lines is the absolute longest anyone’s introduction should be. No one cares where each panelist worked 27 years ago, or how you first met them.
Involve the audience within the first five minutes. This lets your audience know that you’re aware of them, and it keeps your panelists from acting as if they’re in a bubble. You can ask a few people to introduce themselves just by name, title, and company, to get a sense for who is in the audience. I sometimes ask audience members to applaud or boo in response to questions. “Have you ever had a great idea for improving a process at your company? Please applaud.” “OK, now, have you ever found it difficult to get the necessary resources or support to actually improve the process? Please boo.” It livens up the room.
Don’t go down the line every time. By the time the fifth panelist is answering the same question as four other people have answered, the odds they will contribute something interesting have dropped almost to zero. When you ask a question, two answers is plenty, unless a third person is dying to jump in. Instead, ask a related question, ask for a concrete example, or simply shift gears and ask your other panelists about something else.
Invite panelists to ask each other questions. When you send out your pre-panel email, or when you chat with panelists on-site, ask them to think of one question they’d like to ask their fellow panelists. Often, these questions are sharper or more provocative than the questions on your list — and panelists are often more candid when one of their peers asks them a question, as opposed to the “official moderator.”
High Altitude+Specifics+Audience. As you plan out what you want to do with your time, divide it into three roughly equal categories. “High altitude” are those questions where you give your panelists a chance to discuss what is happening in the world at a 30,000-foot level. Specifics are where you invite them to share funny anecdotes, war stories, or concrete examples — things that the audience can really relate to. Audience means not just leaving time for Q&A, but also coming up with creative ways to bring the audience into your conversation. After you’ve asked panelists about the worst hire they ever made, for instance, you might ask people in the audience to share their stories. If you have a panel of venture capitalists and an audience of entrepreneurs, try asking a few bold entrepreneurs to deliver their elevator pitches and get the VCs to suggest ways to improve it.
Don’t ask panelists for “one final thought.” The lamest way to conclude a panel is by giving each panelist an opportunity for a concluding oration. Typically, they’ll recap what they’ve already said, or look to their notes and cough up some uninteresting musing they didn’t have time to get to (usually for good reason.) Use the time instead for a last question from the audience, or for something forward-looking. “What important new trend will we be talking about at next year’s conference?” “What’s your counter-intuitive, half-crazy prediction about the next five years in our industry?”
You are an airline pilot. It’s your job to land this baby on time. Once you push past your scheduled end-time, audience members will get restless, and you’ll start getting dirty looks from the conference organizer. If you don’t have anyone in the room to flash you the “five minutes left” sign, set your mobile phone to vibrate in your pocket when the end is approaching.
If you attend enough panel discussions, you already know that the worst ones feel like a plodding public access TV show — and you can’t switch the channel. The best feel like a fast-paced, unpredictable conversation between smart people on stage and smart people in the audience. Keep that goal in mind, and you’ll soon be modeling for that heroic statue.
Article by: SCOTT KIRSNER
Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column and blog for the Boston Globe, and is a founder of several conferences, including the Nantucket Conference on Entrepreneurship & Innovation. He’s a regular speaker (and panel moderator) at events related to startups and corporate innovation. Scott is also co-founder and editor of InnovationLeader.com, an information service for corporate innovation officers.