As the moderator, you are the audience’s chief advocate.  If someone’s boring you, then chances are they are boring the audience as well.  If you think they are going on too long and not making their point, you need to intervene.

The good news about your panel of experts is that they know A LOT about their issue and are used to talking extensively about it.  You need to make sure they understand the ground rules and when and how you will intervene.

The best way to intervene is to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.  Then, when a panelist or audience member “steps over the line,” you can point to a prevention strategy or ground rule you have put into place:

  • Reinforce the topic/purpose etc. at the beginning.
  • Alert speakers to the fact that all time limits will be strictly observed.
  • Create a signal for them as they come to the end of their time limit.

Sometimes, however, your best-made plans don’t go according to plan!  When you feel the conversation starts to stray, I suggest you use a process I call “escalating interventions.”  You’ll want to be firm, polite and fair because you often don’t have a whole lot of time and want to keep the conversation moving briskly.  So start with the lowest level intervention appropriate to the situation.  If that doesn’t modify the disruptive behavior, then kick it up a notch to the next level intervention.

Do Nothing.  You always have the option to do nothing and see if the situation resolves itself.  However, if you let one person run over, you penalize everyone else.

Eye Contact

  • Shoot ‘em a glance when their time is almost up or they are making inappropriate or irrelevant comments.
  • Confidently check your watch.

Movement. 

  • Move toward them, show a cue card, tap your pencil, or ring a bell.

Redirect the Conversation.

  • Change up the questions.
  • Restate or reframe the question and direct it to another panelist.
  • Rephrase the statement into something more relevant.
  • Condense a panelist’s answer when it is too lengthy.
  • Call on someone in the audience who you know has similar issues and ask if what was just said vibes with them.
  • Gently interrupt and assure them that you can return to discussing X later in the panel if there is enough time.
  • Interject at the end of a sentence or while the panelist is taking a breath.
  • Ask for one conversation at a time when panelists are talking over each other.
  • Transition to the next topic when the topic has been covered enough.

Remind Them.

  • Refocus on the topic.
  • Reinforce the process ground rules.
  • Restate the time allocated for the comment.
  • Reinforce a key point.
  • Announce the time remaining for this section of the panel.

Confront the DisrupterThis is the highest level intervention, and you should only have to resort to this level if you have a jerk on your panel.

  • Appeal to the disrupter.
  • Cut off the speaker.
  • Disengage.

In my experience, you will rarely climb to a confrontation, as long as you place prevention strategies in place and escalate your interventions appropriately during a panel discussion.

For more resources on how to make meetings, panels, and room sets better, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

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3 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high-stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.