The Moderator’s Role in Panel Discussions

The 2014 Panel Report: Are Panel Discussions Effective?
March 18, 2014
No More Panelist Speeches During Panel Discussions!
March 21, 2014

An article in the Atlantic magazine argued that panels would be better without a moderator.  Coming into “peak bad panel season,” her expectations of the myriad panels at SXSW were not all that high.  (By the way, she is one of many people who don’t have high expectations of panels – see the 2014 Panel Report for more on that).

The premise of the article is that panels would be better off without a moderator, so ditch the moderator.  Well, if you ditch the moderator, then you don’t have a panel; you have a roundtable discussion.  Different format.  I don’t mean to quibble….

So what does a moderator actually do that makes the panel worthwhile?  The moderator’s job is to help the audience get their needs met through a panel format.  The moderator sets the tone, the pace and control of the content, staying ever-vigilant in keeping it relevant for the audience.  It is the moderator’s responsibility to make sure the panel is lively, engaging and worthwhile.

Depending on the panel objectives, the panel moderator, has several roles and responsibilities:

Champion for the Audience.  Makes sure the panel is talking about timely issues that the audience cares about.  Continually assesses and reacts to the audience, keeping the conversation on track and meaningful for them.

Facilitator.  Sets the agenda, keeps the discussions on track, brings out differing opinions and the most interesting information, balances panelist participation, clarifies any confusion and intervenes as needed – especially when someone is dominating the conversation.

Timekeeper.  Makes sure the panel starts and ends on time and follows the time frames on the agenda.  Makes sure they don’t spend too much or too little time on any one single element.

Logistician.  Makes sure the panelists show up on time, the room is set, microphones are working, etc.

Instigator.  Probes beneath the surface, asking tough questions of the panel, building the dialogue, keeping the conversation lively and getting out of the way when the conversation is going well.  Pushes the panelists to talk about specifics rather than speak in generalities.  Gets the dialogue going with the audience and sustains the conversation in order to get their questions answered.

Content Coordinator.  Works with the panelists to make sure their presentations do not overlap.  Identifies the areas of debate and controversy.  Coordinates slideshows where appropriate.

Energizer.  Models energy and enthusiasm.  Works the room and engages the audience.  Injects a little humor where appropriate to keep it lively.

Neutral & Objective.  Withholds own personal opinions and judgment. Doesn’t show bias or favoritism toward any particular side, faction or person.

When the moderator takes on these roles, there isn’t a need to ditch the moderator.   Unfortunately, when you have an unskilled moderator who makes the typical moderator mistakes, you’re probably better off having a roundtable discussion!


For more information about the moderator’s role, check out the video learning course module from our free 7-part video course:

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Related Articles:

Panel Moderator Checklist for Meeting with Panelists Prior to Panel Discussions

Attention Meeting Professionals: The Main Reason Your Panels are Boring

Try a “Lightning Round” to Increase Energy in Your Panel Discussions

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.

Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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