So you’re thinking about running a session for FtBCon, but you haven’t moderated a panel discussion before. Or you ran one, but you didn’t feel that you knew quite how to make it go the way you wanted it to. We’re here to help.
Moderating a panel discussion, like most complex skills, looks effortless when done by someone with experience. It’s easy to underestimate how much work it is until you’re the person expected to keep things moving, on topic, interesting, and interactive all at once. Here’s a guide to make it easier when you find yourself in that position with no idea what to do.
Before the Panel
- If you have any say in picking your panelists, work toward a diverse group. Not only does this help keep you from accidental discrimination, but it makes for more interesting and informative discussion. Talking in generalizations is easy, but it doesn’t advance anyone’s understanding. Different perspectives make for more disagreement, particularly of the kind that result in nuanced statements and deeper understanding.There are many ways to think of diversity in this context: academic vs. experiential knowledge of a topic, regional or national background, age/generation, academic or other occupational specialty, volunteer vs. paid work, size of organization, confrontational vs. collaborational approach to activism–all in addition to the differences we typically think of when we talk about being inclusive.
- Once you have your panelists, talk to them. Find out how they relate to your topic. Find out what they’re tired of talking about and what excites them. Find out what areas they think are important to cover and what they think are the weaknesses of mainstream discussions of the topic. Find out whether they have a strange story they’d like to tell. All of these things will help you use your panelists to differentiate your panel from every other talk on the topic. Find out too, particularly if you know a panelist personally, if there are things they have told you that they don’t want to say on a public stage.
- Come up with a good title and description for your session as early as possible. Feel free to use a hook, like a pop culture reference, to catch people’s attention, but don’t leave them in the dark about what to expect from the panel. This will ensure that audience members want to be where they are and that panelists know what’s expected of them.
- Don’t hold your panel before you hold your panel. This can be hard when you have nervous panelists. They may want to know exactly what’s going to happen at every point in a panel. However, this is a practical impossibility. The point of a panel discussion is the back and forth, participants building on and/or disagreeing with what they’re hearing during the panel.So what can you do to help a nervous panelist prepare without locking it down so hard you kill conversation? Talk to them about general topical areas you want to cover, but don’t give them your questions. Have them give you anecdotes and specific questions they want to get out, so you can make space for those in your questions and they can have some sense of having material prepared. Talk to them about the topic yourself so they can rehearse, but do it without other panelists present so those interactions stay fresh.
- Make notes to remind yourself how the session should go. You won’t see an experienced moderator’s notes, but that’s because they’ve gotten used to using them subtly. They know how to look at their notes when attention is on another speaker, or they’ve committed them to memory because that works for them, but they’ve made notes.They know which organizations and websites to name drop. They know which speakers want to talk about what. They have a sense of where the conversation should begin and end, the highlights it should hit along the way, the places they should move from generalizations to specifics, the follow-up questions that will pull more detail out, how the topics to be covered flow from one into another, and where the tangent started from so the conversation can be put back on the rails if it goes off. They can check their progress against their time and prompt a quiet panelist with specific questions that remind them how the panelist’s expertise is important to the topic at hand. It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s a lot simpler than hemming and hawing in front of an audience. And for a one-hour session, it doesn’t take as much work as you think.
- Pay attention to how your topic has been in the news recently, both in your community and in the wider world. Be aware of what information and perspectives your audience will bring to the topic. Know whether misinformation or misperceptions are being spread, so that your panelists have an opportunity to correct the record.
- Talk to your panelists about introductions. What do they want people to know about them? Are they comfortable talking themselves up? Are they too comfortable talking about themselves? Once you have this information, you can decide whether you want to perform the introductions or let the panelists introduce themselves.
- If at all possible, get your panelists together and talking a few minutes before your session starts. Introduce everyone to each other (if needed) and get some mild chitchat going, even if only over who wants to speak in what order. A discussion is a social interaction. Getting people used to talking to each other gives everyone a chance to feel out how conversation will go and settle into their expectations.
- Make sure people understand the tech you’re using–including you. Do you have to lean into a microphone for it to work, or does that create distorted sound? Do your panelists know how to mute themselves if they have to type during an online panel? Do they know where to find chat messages? Do they have headphones? Require a tech run if at all possible.
- Coordinate with your emcee if there is one so they know how much introductory work (if any) they’re expected to do.
During the Panel
- Start by introducing your topic and making it relevant to your audience as much as possible. Most people who have chosen to attend your panel have some sense of why they’re there, but focusing on those reasons up front helps get everyone invested in the success of the panel.
- Let the audience know up front how and when questions will be handled. Will someone collect them as they come up? Should they hold questions for a Q&A period? Do they need to be submitted through a particular channel or, in the case of an online conference, through a website that people may need help finding? Answer all these questions up front so people can concentrate on content. Remind them that questions should be in the form of a question, not an essay.
- Keep introductions brief and combine them with discussion. Start off with a question everyone can answer briefly (I try to use questions that reveal a speaker’s perspective on the topic at hand). If you’re introducing speakers, introduce each of them as you ask them to answer the question. If they’re introducing themselves, keep control of the process by asking them each individually to both tell people about them and answer the first question. Your audience will remember who everyone is better if you space out names and if they have some sense of each panelist as a person as they’re introduced.
- Start general and get more specific through the session. Help your speakers take a little time up front to locate the topic in relation to other information the audience already has. Are there ongoing debates your session can help settle? Do your audience members have goals this information will help them reach? Is this a follow-up to another discussion? If you can tie your session to things audience members already think about, you’ll improve retention and integration of the information your panelists provide.
- Make sure everyone has a chance to talk. Pay attention to who is contributing and how long. Take active steps to balance this out. This can mean asking quieter panelists whether they have anything to add before you move on to another question, addressing new questions first to people who have spoken less, figuring out when quieter panelists are trying to interject and facilitating their interruption, specifying that you’d like someone to keep their answer or interjection brief (or to hold it entirely) for the sake of time, or cutting someone off if they’re taking over. I know it can feel rude to signal to a speaker that they’re talking too much, but it’s also rude to your other panelists and to your audience to let one or two people dominate the discussion. People committed their time to your event expecting a panel, not a speech.
- Manage strong disagreements. Sometimes arguments help tease out detail on a topic. Sometimes they just take up time without adding anything for the the audience. If you know a panelist disagrees with something that’s just been said in a way that helps people understand the field, corrects misinformation or overgeneralization, or simply demonstrates that no consensus exists on a topic, ask that panelist whether they agree. Pay attention to when arguments start to repeat or require specialist training to follow, and shut those down as soon as you can. Then get back on your topic.
- If you’re moderating an online panel, use the tools available to you to minimize distractions and confusion. Mute participants (if you have access) who don’t mute themselves when they’re not speaking and there’s too much noise on their end. Use mute briefly if you need it to facilitate an interruption. Use chat to announce a change in plans, answer a panelist question, or to have a panelist screen a dubious question. Drop or block a panelist in the rare event that they become belligerently disruptive. Again, your responsibility as moderator is to the panel as a whole and to your audience.
- Make serendipity work. Be on the lookout for unplanned digressions that are beneficial to understanding your topic. When panelists use jargon, have them give definitions. When they bring up something that requires background knowledge, have them provide it. If an audience member submits a question you were planning to ask, use it in the appropriate place so they feel their contribution affected the course of the discussion.
- If your audience questions are submitted rather than asked live, look them over before asking and make sure you understand them. Don’t feel you have to include the exact wording if you can make the question more succinct or better understood. If a question refers to a specific part of the prior discussion and the context helps the question make sense, add it. If you feel a question’s already been answered, don’t feel you have to answer it. If you’re not sure whether it’s been answered, refer to the part of the discussion you think answers it and ask your panelists whether they want to add anything.
- Watch your time. If you promise time for comments, deliver. If you have some extra time, ask your panelists for things you should have asked about or to deliver summary thoughts. End on time so your audience can take care of their needs before the next session. Thank your panelists and your audience, then say a clear goodbye.
After the Session
- Thank your panelists again.
- Follow up on any links or other information mentioned in the session that should be attached to video or write-ups.
- Keep track of any topics that came up during the session that deserve sessions of their own. If you have an outlet, make sure those get covered some other time. This helps keep our panel discussions from all being 101-level or too general to be interesting.