When I talk to my clients about where they source their panel moderators to facilitate a panel discussion at a meeting, conference or convention, I’m not surprised:
Their replies are usually along the lines of:
- They are a local celebrity/newsperson
- They are well-known in our association
- They are a nice sponsor who needs a little visibility to be happy
- They are a member who offered to put together a panel
- Someone mentioned that this person would be good
- I “Googled” it
- One of our speakers volunteered to do it
- We don’t have panel moderators; we just put on a panel expecting a great conversation to ensue!
The key to a successful panel is in the careful selection of the panel moderator. Based on the meeting sponsor’s vision and direction, the panel moderator brings the session to life: often selecting and prepping the panelists, determining the format to ensure a lively and informative conversation and having excellent facilitator skills to keep the conversation focused and moving along.
And yet, I am astounded to hear meeting organizers telling me that they rarely vet the panel moderator. Why wouldn’t they put the panel moderator under the same scrutiny as they would their mainstage speakers?
So next time you want to “hire” a panel moderator, perform the same kind of due diligence you would for your mainstage keynoter:
- Assemble a list of potential candidates – and don’t forget to aim high! It’s great to Google the usual suspects, but you can also look to a reputable speakers bureau to help you find just the right fit for your audience. (Full disclosure, I am available to be on that list!)
- Check the credentials. Have they ever moderated a panel before? Just because they are a nice and/or famous person doesn’t mean they have the skills to facilitate a robust panel discussion.
- Verify. Beware of the people you think should be able to facilitate a conversation; they may be fabulous at reading from a teleprompter and lousy at impromptu performances. Ask for and check their client references and see if you can catch them in action.
- If you can, see if they have any video uploaded on YouTube. How interactive are they? Is the tone conversational? Is this person going to be effective with your audience?
- If possible, see if you can get invited to see the person in action at an upcoming event. Sometimes, that’s just not possible (distance gets in the way or the other client doesn’t want you to listen in), but it never hurts to ask!
- Listen to Your Spidey-Sense. If it’s hard to find good video or to see them in action, then rely on your intuition – using a few indicators of success:
- When you initially call to see if he is available, he should ask you good, open-ended questions about the program, the objectives, the people in the room. He should probe deeper where appropriate – and don’t be surprised if some of these questions make you think. That’s what good facilitators do.
- When you ask about her experiences, she is able to share several instances where she has moderated a panel before – and possibly with the same kind of audience. When a moderator is able to rattle off several similar experiences, you know that she has facilitated for more than one or two a year!
- Ask him about what kind of preparation he typically puts into moderating a panel discussion. Listen carefully for cues that this person will be attentive to the real issues your audience cares about e.g. researching the topic, reaching out to the panelists to identify the key issues, reaching out to the attendees through interviews or social media to get a sense for what they believe the real issues are and making sure the format is entertaining and impactful. If he says “not much” then I’d take a pass. He may be a font of information about the topic, but you would probably be better having him as a panelist than as a moderator.
- Ask her about how should would go about engaging and involving the audience. You’re looking for more than “Q&A at the end.” See how innovative your panel moderator can be!
- Technology. Many meeting organizers have selected an event mobile app. Your panel moderator should enthusiastically support the use of the official app by taking online polls, crowdsourcing questions, sharing panelist slides etc. And if you don’t have an event mobile app, a savvy panel moderator will share some ideas about how to bring technology to the event – if appropriate.
- Add More Value. Just like speakers, panel moderators can add more value than just moderating the panel. They can engage the audience beforehand and reinforce the key messages after the event.
You have way too much at stake to allow just anyone to moderate your panel discussions. Before you say “yes” to that usual suspect, check him or her out. You’ll have a higher probability of making the panel extraordinary!
For more tips on selecting great panelists, listen to this podcast.
How to Get Your Panel Discussion Proposal Approved by Conference Organizers
How to Find “D.E.E.P.” Panelists
Attention Meeting Professionals: The Main Reason Your Panels are Boring
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.