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How to . . . moderate a live panel

Some essential do's and dont's.

Sweet moderation: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Getty Images

I’ve had to moderate at hundreds of live events during a career spent mainly as a journalist. You learn a thing or two over the years, mainly from all the things that go wrong. Here are some pointers:

Do take control. From the moment an event organiser asks you to do run a panel – or chair a day or do a depth-interview "fireside chat" – treat it as your session. Consider the quality, quantity and especially suitability of guests and whether you should draft some in or have them on stand-by. Consider who will be attending (regardless of what the publicity says). Consider the venue – especially the stage set-up, AV equipment and preferred format.

While pre-event conference calls and "discussion notes" are now the done thing, nothing beats some prep with your panellists on the day itself. There is often a "speakers room" at a lot of corporate or public sector events. Use it but be aware of who might also be in there – it can also double as a press room.

Do call guests by their names – audience members too if you recognise them at Q&A time. And get those names right. In written content spelling is everything. In a debate it’s all about pronunciation. Spell out names phonetically in front of you if that helps. Definitely finish by thanking guests and referring to them by their full name. (Each guest and the audience will feel the benefit.)

Think of your standards bar for engagement and energy on stage. It should feel more like a CNN debate than a village hall book club. (No offence to book clubs.)

Do take a pencil on stage. I’ve written at length about the rise of tablet computers, which can be great props and practical beyond paper, allowing you to look up information or use Twitter, for example. But try note taking on an iPad on the fly. Try pointing at something. A pencil wins every time.

Don’t let guests introduce themselves or give lengthy summaries. For one, it’ll make you look lazy or unprepared. Nobody sticks to the time you give them and especially with intros being early on you are unlikely to cut in and stop them. And it may well become a procession of one-upmanship. Or selling. Or both. All without tone having been set by you, so it’s wildly inconsistent to boot.

Don’t give guests your questions in advance. Many will be nervous if you don’t tell them what to expect – and telling them what to expect, even giving them an outline of the flow and subject areas is fine. But with precise questions they’ll rehearse answers that then won’t sound natural. They’ll even use those answers for questions which you will have changed slightly on the day. And they’ll (sometimes) get upset if they prepare for questions you never end up asking.

Don’t get wrapped up in "off the record" or Chatham House Rule stuff while on stage. Find out beforehand if the latter applies. Tell your guests there’s really no such thing as the former. The bottom line is that what you or your guests say in public is quotable, usable, permanent. Good luck out there.

Tony Hallett is the author of Everything in Moderation - How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events

 

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