What’s the value of a master moderator?

You’ve witnessed panel discussions at meetings that were either a hit or a gigantic, boring miss, where the audience members left in droves, or got a lot of work done on the Blackberries. In either case, who is responsible? The organizer who invited the panelists and moderator? The moderator? The panelists?

A master moderator can make a panel the hit of a meeting. Although excellent moderators make it look easy, it really isn’t. It takes a lot of work to clarify the expectations of the organizer, pinpoint the needs of the audience, pre-interview each panelist, target questions to each panelist’s strength, and listen closely enough to each panelist’s comments that you can ask follow-up questions on the fly and make real-time modifications.

Many people believe if they are comfortable in front of a group, they can moderate a panel. This is far from the truth. While comfort in front of an audience is essential, just being at ease isn’t the only critical skill needed.

A master moderator helps shape the session. I was recently asked to moderate a panel of thought leaders on “Grow Your Business with New Internet Strategies: Five Experts Share Best Practice Secrets.” Here’s some of what went into my moderation of the panel:

  • Worked with the organizer to refine the objective of the program.
  • Researched the topic to make sure I understood the general concepts.
  • Interviewed each of the 5 panelists ahead of time to go over the outline and see where s/he had comments on each section.
  • Estimated times for each section of the outline to make sure it all fit in the allotted time frame.
  • Set the ground rules for how the program would be run and communicated that to the audience.
  • Suggested the organization’s leaders be table hosts to ensure tablemates were introduced, and facilitate the round-table discussion. Sent the leaders the guidelines for their role.
  • Included a 10-minute audience discussion at their round tables to share ideas they received that they could implement.
  • Asked that questions be submitted through the table hosts on 3×5 cards which were then vetted and prioritized by the program coordinator so only the most relevant questions were asked during the Q&A.
  • Ensured an audience-friendly set up by having the panelists sit on high bar stools on a riser without a table, to give a more open feel. Normally panelists sit behind a table, often without a riser, and it is hard for the audience to see or connect to them.
  • Created in-the-moment audience surveys so the panelists would know the experience level of audience members.
  • Edited the agenda on the fly as panelists answered questions they were going to address later.
  • Added clarifying questions throughout. Kept bringing the questions back to what would be most useful to the audience.
  • Threw in occasional quips that got the audience laughing and kept them engaged.

While the panel session was 2.5 hours, I put in at least a day’s work to prepare for it and make it a success. The client said this was the best panel they have ever had and one of the best presentations they’ve had in 10 years. The comments from the audience was they weren’t bored once and the time flew by.

“You were absolutely outstanding! Thanks so much for the terrific and very professional example you set as a moderator – it was a pleasure working with you and participating in such a well-planned and high-energy panel discussion.” — Celeste Bishop

“Thank you again for facilitating the panel presentation. You did a fabulous job! Keeping the panelists focused, pulling from them great information, and keeping attendees engaged is no small task. You made it seem effortless. We appreciate your time and efforts in making this event a huge success!” –Rogene Baxter

(To the members of the group, Rogene publicly wrote: “The panel was superb and Rebecca Morgan’s skill as moderator was indeed impressive. ” )

“Outstanding job getting the panel together and making this the best IMC presentation yet! Thank you!” –Jon Seidel

“You did an outstanding job.” –John Girard

“You did an excellent job, and again, I can’t tell how much you
contributed to the success of the event and how much we appreciate your willingness to do this.” –Jeff Thompson

“You organized [the panel] very well. The pace was perfect.” –Chris Peterson

“You did a great job as a moderator.” –Redge Martin

I love to moderate panels and would happy to discuss moderating one for you, especially if the stakes are high, say at a customer meeting or industry conference.

If you find yourself responsible for moderating a panel, you may find this article I wrote years ago useful to you, “How To Effectively Moderate a Panel.

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