Preparing to Moderate Panels

Best moderation practices vary by the audience of the event, the panel topic, and the panelists themselves. There is no One True Way to moderate well, and I’m not a certified expert! That said, I think there are some broadly applicable preparatory principles for many moderating situations. I’ll explain my reasoning for each to help people judge in what ways they may apply to their particular moderation needs.

First, a note: it’s the job of a moderator to keep any one person—a panelist, an audience member, and their own self—from derailing or running away with the panel. If you agree to moderate, you need to be prepared to redirect, cut people off, or talk over them. You are responsible for the course of the panel, even if you find yourself with an obnoxious panelist or audience member. They happen. Expect the possibility. How moderators deal with those circumstances would be a topic all on its own, so all I’m going to say on this point here is to make sure you’re willing to deal with that possibility before you agree to moderate.

In this post, I’m focusing on the logistics of moderation prep, and my first few recommendations are straightforward:

  • Bring some form of time piece (even if there’s a room monitor to warn you when you’re almost out of time).
  • Bring some form of writing setup (like a notebook and pencil) with you to the panel.
  • Expect to listen more than you speak.

Here’s why.

Aside from helping guide the content of the panel conversation, moderators also guide the course of the conversation. A panel is not just a conversation among experts; it’s an improvised performance. To that end, there are several things moderators should be keeping track of.

  1. Time. The panel only has so much time. Moderators need to make sure it’s not eaten up by a derailing (or endless) point, be it from a panelist or an audience member. They need to have a sense of when it’s time to move on, when they need to start wrapping up to open to audience questions, that sort of thing. Some moderators have a good innate sense of this, but having actual numbers in front of you can help.
  2. Audience questions. Methods vary, but moderators need to track who to call on so people in the audience don’t have to hold their hands in the air forever. It can also be distracting for the panelists, and stressful for people who think others are being ignored. Jotting down a note about the general region the question came from and a notable but innocuous physical characteristic (like an article of clothing, so you can gesture in the direction and call out something like “the person in the pink shirt”—special thanks to Clarissa Ryan for pointing out that moderators should also make a point of avoiding gendered language) and nodding at the person in question so they know you’ve noted them is an easy way to manage this.
  3. Panelist engagement. You don’t want one panelist dominating the conversation. You want a balance to make sure everyone on the panel gets to contribute, and for this you need to actively pay attention to who is comfortable jumping in on their own, who runs away with questions and will need to be redirected, and who is more reticent and will need to be prodded with questions.

 

With that said, these are some guidelines for preparing to moderate a panel. Again, there’s a huge spectrum in useful methods, but these are some principles I’ve had good experience with and would like to pass them on in case they help others. As with all advice, if they don’t work for you, don’t adopt them! Now, without further ado:

  1. EMAIL YOUR PANELISTS.

First, make sure to email them either individually or use BCC (do not give out other people’s contact information without permission), and email them from a professional email account (if you don’t have an email account with the event’s organization, YourName@gmail is fine; dragonsRtehbEST23@yahoo does not fill me with confidence about your professionalism, even if I agree with the sentiment).

Introduce yourself and invite them to contact you with any questions about the panel. They may have some important ones you wouldn’t have thought of, and the panel will have been improved because they knew their input was welcome.

You may also want to email them all again shortly before the event (if it’s a panel at a con, email them a few days before the start of the con, because they won’t have time for careful emails once they’re in transit or there) for any final questions they’ve forgotten to ask previously. Most panelists won’t have any, but it’s good to remind them about the panel and give them a last chance to ask in case.

 

  1. KNOW WHO YOUR PANELISTS ARE AND WHY THEY’RE ON THE PANEL.

This will not always be as obvious as you’d prefer! You don’t necessarily need to have read entire books by them—though this does help—but you need to be familiar enough with their work and/or background to direct questions appropriately during the panel.

 

  1. INTRODUCING THE PANEL AND PANELISTS.

Set the tone for what kind of panel this is going to be right from the get-go, because setting expectations clearly at the outset will save you trouble down the moderating road. If you’re not sure how well you can do this on the fly, write out a couple sentences of introduction in advance and bring them with you.

You also want to plan out how you’re going to introduce the panelists. Many moderators let panelists introduce themselves, which can work fine! But I actually recommend preparing a short (~two sentences) blurb about each. This has several advantages:

  • You can make sure the audience has necessary context to understand where panelists’ opinions are coming from or whom they might want to ask questions of.
  • You can make sure no panelist launches into an exhaustive spiel about their books.
  • You can make sure those prone to massive understatement are given their due.
  • You can set an equal playing field for the panelists by making sure no introduction is substantially longer or shorter than any other. (If someone has written everything under the sun over a twenty year career, summarize; if they have fewer credentials, talk about the merit of their work in more depth.)

If you plan to introduce the panelists yourself, make sure you include the most recent publication audience members can buy from them if such a thing exists. Panelists are generally there for career reasons, so if you’re not going to give them the chance to make the pitch themselves (and in most cases they are delighted for someone else to make the pitch on their behalf!), don’t negate the opportunity to promote their work.

 

  1. PLAN SAMPLE QUESTIONS.

This is arguably the most important point. This makes sure you, as the moderator, are actually prepared for the panel by making you think about the topic, the course you envision for the panel, and what kind of experience you want to help the audience get out of it before it’s upon you. It’ll help you figure out what, if any, questions you need to raise with the panelists or event organizers in advance.

I aim to have ten* solid questions—if I can’t come up with that many, I don’t have the right perspective to moderate. Don’t expect to ask all of them (and definitely don’t interrupt the course of the panel to make sure you can!), because a good panel will diverge organically as the conversation evolves. But you want to have questions ready in case the conversation loses steam or you need to steer the conversation away from fraught waters.

I also make sure I bring a paper copy of my questions with me to the panel and mark off ones we’ve addressed or jot down notes as we go, so I make sure I don’t repeat on accident. Having written notes in front of you can also give you jumping-off points to reframe questions that come up in the course of the panel, and they help keep you from having to scramble in front of an audience.

 

  1. EMAIL A REPRESENTATIVE SELECTION OF SAMPLE QUESTIONS TO THE PANELISTS IF YOU CAN.

Sometimes you can’t, which isn’t the end of the world. But if you can, it helps give panelists an idea of what they’re getting into—and assurance that their moderator knows what they’re doing—and also a chance to reflect on the direction you plan on taking the panel. It helps people who prefer more processing time to be more comfortable actively participating on the panel, and it also allows them the opportunity to raise concerns if needed.

As a note, in my experience, more often than not panelists don’t respond to the list of questions. This generally means everything is fine and you don’t need to worry about it.

 

  1. START WITH AN INTRODUCTORY QUESTION.

When I moderate, I like to go beyond 101 level discussions. Not all panels are like this! But even for panels aiming for a deeper consideration of a topic, I like to start with an introductory question. This should be something that sets up questions to follow but isn’t so complicated off the bat that panelists and audience members alike are thrown for a loop. Ease everyone into the topic and level of discourse.

 

  1. DON’T OPEN TO AUDIENCE QUESTIONS TOO SOON.

Of course you don’t want to leave no time for audience questions either, but this is a more common failing I’ve witnessed in panels. A panel is not the same as a Q&A session, and if the audience has been promised a panel, that is what they should receive. The chosen panelists need to have time to actually dive into the topic they’re ostensibly there to discuss. Give them time to answer questions from the moderator and talk about them amongst themselves before taking audience questions. The exact timing will vary with the panel, but I never open for questions before the midway point and leave no fewer than ten minutes at the end for audience questions.

 

  1. FINAL THOUGHTS.

When it nears time for the panel to conclude, I like to invite closing thoughts from the panelists—this helps the panel feel like it’s come to a conclusion, rather than that you just abruptly cut things off (which in general you have, because ideally there are lots of questions coming from the audience, but you don’t want them to feel cut off). In particular, I often ask for any thoughts on the panel topic the panelists don’t think the panel has covered. It works as a good wrap-up without just restating everything that’s gone before and gives the audience food for thought on other directions the panel conversation could have gone.

 

That’s what I can think of for now! But perhaps this goes some way toward clarifying why I always say that effective panel moderation takes both skill and work. If you have questions about any of my points, please feel free to ask in the comments!

 

*Special thanks to the panel submission process at Sirens, because many of these practices are drawn from inferences made from their guidelines.

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