A Newbie’s Guide to Becoming a Moderator

Moderating a panel discussion like a pro - elsieisy blog

A panel discussion is a popular format for group conversations and debates. It enables 3-5 panellists to discuss a certain topic amongst themselves, in the view of a listening audience, for about 45 minutes to one hour.

The first panel discussion is believed to have taken place in the 1900s when a group of scientists and philosophers gathered to talk about the nature of reality. Since then, panel discussions have become a common sight in a lot of settings.

While these discussions started as in-person, with an event taking place physically and panellists facing an audience, they have since evolved. The advent of technology has opened the door to virtual conversations, and an array of virtual event tools to choose from has ensured that panel discussions can be held anywhere, online. They can now be hosted on social tools such as Twitter Spaces, Instagram/Facebook Live, LinkedIn, Google Meet, Zoom, and more.

Also, some panel discussions have taken hybrid forms, with the audience (and sometimes, a panellist) having the opportunity to join virtually, while the conversation takes place in a physical environment. 

To ensure that these conversations are seamless, appropriate, adhere to the rules of public engagement, and are objective, panel moderators became a thing. They are responsible for hosting, facilitating, reviewing, and guiding discussions between the panellists and the audience.

One of the things I enjoy doing for work is moderating panel discussions. I love this part of my job so much that I sometimes introduce myself as a ‘conversationalist’. Recently, I attended an event where the moderator fumbled the bag. This was not because they were not smart or knowledgeable, they were just not suited for the role.

Just as with any other speciality, it is important to understand the rules of the game. Because of my work in media, I have had the opportunity of interviewing over 500 successful people, however, a panel discussion is not a one-on-one interview. Also, a moderator is not a master of ceremonies.

Below is a guide on how to moderate a panel discussion like a professional. This is a newbie’s guide at moderating:

1. Research your TPA (Topic, Panellists & Audience)

As a moderator, while you do not need to be an expert on the discussion topic, having basic knowledge of the topic of discussion helps for a more seamless discourse. You will need to thoroughly research and understand the topic to be discussed.

It is not enough to blurt out ‘awesome and thank you for your response’ after every panellist. Extensive research on the topic will help your confidence as you do the job of asking questions and guiding the conversation.

Research the panellists. Find out who they are, what they have done, and their strengths and weaknesses. It is advised to meet the speakers before the panel discussion. This can be in person on the day of the event or by reaching out to connect with them via LinkedIn or email to introduce yourself and get a feel of how they are thinking about the panel discussion. However, if you don’t get the reception for this, you will be fine.

And finally, know your audience. What type of audience is this event expected to attract and what do they want to take away from the event?

2. Work closely with the organising team

An essential part of your research will be working closely with the organising committee, especially the people in charge of the program flow and PR management of the event.

Some important questions you need to ask will include the following: What is the goal of the event? What is the objective of the panel discussion or fireside chat? Are there prepared questions or do I have to draft the questions and share them with the team? Who are the panellists? Can you get an up-to-date biography of the panellists? How many minutes should the session last?

3. Be professional

I attended an event where the moderator spent over five minutes introducing herself and what she does. Because I was part of the event as an MC, a colleague sent me a WhatsApp message to confirm if she was a moderator or a panellist. Being a moderator is not an opportunity to show off. Your role is one of the most defined roles in the program of events — to efficiently facilitate and guide a conversation. It is okay to use your knowledge in a way that directs the conversation and gets the best out of the panellists.

To open your panel discussion, follow these simple steps:

  • Welcome the attendees, thank them for being part of the event, introduce yourself, and your role as a moderator.
  • State the reason why the panel discussion is being organised and its objective.
  • Inform the attendees and panellists about the discussion procedure and ground rules (duration, Q&A, etc)
  • Introduce the panellists with a very abridged version of their biography
  • Ask your first question.

4. Be 100 percent present

It is important that you pay attention to your panellists when they are responding to your questions. I have seen moderators get distracted by their mobile phones or event organisers. Asides from being rude to your guest speakers, sometimes, to get the best out of the discourse, a follow-up question might be necessary which the moderator will totally miss if they aren’t paying attention. You also miss the biggest takeaways from the discussion which would be needed for a powerful ending for your panel discussion.

5. Dress for the Occasion

As a moderator, you are a secondary part of the organising team. How you look reflects the brand you represent. Is the brand conservative, bold or daring? Aim to stand out but let their brand guide and direct you. Never wear a competitor’s brand colour. Be stylish and classy. As a woman, I prefer wearing corporate pants or corporate casual dresses. It is important to be comfortable and dress right for the occasion.

The path to becoming a better moderator is one of consistency, research, and showing up for yourself. I wish you well on this path.

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