How to . . . moderate a live panel

Some essential do's and dont's.

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


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

Tony Hallett is a former editorial director at CBS Interactive UK and author of "Everything in Moderation"

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.