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
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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