Panel discussions today are replacing keynote addresses for the sole reason that they are a lot more interactive and present a democratic view on things. Anyone — be it a student or corporate executive — can be asked to moderate or be part of a panel discussion. In order for it to progress smoothly, a panel needs a good, effective moderator. The moderator’s job is to guide the discussion in a meaningful direction, be the voice of the audience and viewers, and also probe into the views presented in the discussion.
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So, if you have been assigned a panel to moderate, here are a couple of things you should be taking care of:
Know your audience
Just like any speaker, a moderator must know his audience. What are the key interests of your audience? Why would they choose to be part of this discussion and what do they aim to learn from it? This helps you prepare a discussion guide that captures attention and will keep the discussion relevant and meaningful to the audience.
Give yourself time and prepare fully
This includes understanding the purpose of the panel, being up to date about any controversial topics or subtopics related to the discussion, and understanding the flow and overall conclusion one wishes to draw from it. Also, write an introduction and rough flow chart for reference to guide the discussion.
Choosing panel members
This may or may not be the case for every panel discussion, but if you do have the liberty to choose participants, create a panel which has the right mix of expertise, opinion, and knowledge on the topic. Try also to maintain diversity in terms of experience and different domains. If you happen to a have a panel full of scholars, your discussion will be restricted only to their opinions, and won’t be interesting for someone who is an amateur in the field and has little knowledge.
Compile great questions
Prepare some open-ended questions in advance. Here is how they help:
- A participant has taken the discussion into a different direction and you wish to get the panel back to the agenda
- There are a few topics that have been left untouched and you wish to probe them
- You realise a participant has not got a chance to present his/her view and you wish for them to speak up
Part of the art of moderation is the art of interviewing, and any interviewer will tell you that preparation is the key to asking the most interesting and provocative questions.Get the conversation started quickly with well-prepared questions. Start with broad questions to start a conversation about current events. Next, move to stating the reasons the audience should care, and then ask specific questions to spur the panellists to share anecdotes, concrete examples, and implementation ideas. Also, be willing to let go of your planned questions when an interesting discussion emerges.
The final check
Ensure you know your participants before you meet them; this can also be done in person or on call. Give them a brief about the panel, which can include:
- Their speaker number
- Introduction suggestions
- Panellists, speakers, and audience expectations
- Any time limit that they need to follow
Once in session
Once in session, ensure you introduce every team member, especially if anyone is a last-minute substitute whose name won’t be in the event programme. Start out your panel discussion with an easy question or topic so that they can settle in and relax. Then raise the stakes, probing into more controversial areas.
- Rather than field every question yourself, allow the panellists to question each other. The audience will be far more interested in dialogue between panellists than every single exchange starting with your question
- If the audience are to engage in questions, maintain a fair system where everyone gets a chance. This can be as simple as allotting people numbers, or handing over cards for questions and asking them on behalf on them.
Never lose sight of the fact that you are the champion for the audience. Always keep listeners in mind and make sure their needs are being met throughout the session. Moderation is an art that can only be perfected with time and practice.