Why is Panel Moderation Important?
The question of how to moderate a panel may seem easy enough to answer – show up, ask questions, and let the discussion commence. And while it is largely about letting the conversation flow, moderating a panel discussion is more like being a conversational traffic controller.
As the moderator, you direct the conversation so that it becomes a dynamic and fast-moving flow of information that entertains, inspires, and engages your audience. When that happens, panel presentations live up to their potential – valuable opportunities for audiences to gain knowledge, insight, and perspectives from several experts in a concentrated amount of time.
It all comes down to using the best practices for moderating a panel discussion. In this guide, we identify those techniques and guide you in how to make a panel discussion interesting by successfully using them.
During a panel discussion, good panel moderators are entirely present and mindful of opportunities to embrace the unpredictable and spontaneous nature of a panel discussion. They have the skills and techniques to keep things interesting – such as asking provocative questions and encouraging debate. And, they have the confidence and expertise to keep the conversation on track.
Learning how to moderate a panel effectively combines many elements. Are you new to the task? Are you wondering how to hold a panel discussion? This guide will help you to become adept at how to start a panel discusssion, how to introduce a panel, how to take questions from your audience, and many other strategies in between.
How to Structure a Panel Discussion
If you have ever attended a panel discussion (or been on one), you’ve likely witnessed the format that many panel presentations follow. The moderator opens the discussion and introduces each panelist. In turn, each panelist spends several moments talking about themselves, their expertise, and their background. The group then moves into a discussion, and, if time permits, the moderator opens the discussion to the audience for comments and questions.
The structure may appear simple enough on paper, but one important factor in knowing how to moderate a panel is understanding that panel discussions are often more challenging than typical presentations. Moderators are not only presenters themselves, with all the attendant requirements, such as handling visual and technical elements, but they also must be mindful of:
- Guiding on-topic conversations and steering off-topic ones back on track.
- Actively listening to the panelists’ answers and comments.
- Forming insightful follow-up questions.
- Distributing response time fairly.
- Contending with long-winded speakers.
- Managing audience engagement.
When it comes to structuring a panel discussion, moderators must decide how they will introduce the panelists, what questions to ask panelists, how they will take questions from the audience, what’s the overarching idea or thread of the conversation, and how they will help the audience to see that. They may be able to influence other aspects, too, such as the seating arrangement and discussion length.
Let’s get into the specifics of how to moderate a panel.
Introduce the Panelists
At the start of any performance – from the moments before a curtain is raised or the first note is played – there’s often a feeling of anticipation among participants and the audience. Such excitement can exist at the start of a panel discussion, too. Unfortunately, many moderators unintentionally cause that energy to fade when they allow too much time for panelist introductions. For instance, in a typical 50-minute presentation, if all three guests get about five minutes each for an introduction, you’ve already eaten up about 15 to 20 minutes on what is, typically, mostly background material.
Here’s a way to offer introductions that keep the energy and excitement from fading:
- Start with an open that establishes the context of the conversation in an interesting and memorable way. Your opening should reveal the key message and the role of the panelists in conveying that message. Are they proposing solutions to a problem? Sharing a discovery? Asking the audience to act? Perhaps you start with a story or propose a riddle that will be solved by end of the discussion. You can look to some of these non-panel presentation opens for additional inspiration.
- Offer “mini-introductions” of each guest instead of opening the floor to statements from panelists. These should be short bios that panelists have provided. Ahead of time, ask each panelist to include a sentence that specifically addresses their connection to the topic, such as professional or personal experience, research findings, or their viewpoint or opinion on the subject. You could provide each panelist time for a brief statement – say 30 seconds or less that sheds additional context on why they are interested in the topic.
- Don’t forget to introduce yourself. But keep it short.
Ask the Panelists Questions
What are the best questions to ask a panel?
The best questions help your audience to gain a better and deeper understanding of the topic, as well as see the expertise, knowledge, and value each panelist brings to the subject. This is no small task, but, with the right approach, you can create questions to ask when moderating a panel that fulfill these goals. Here are a few ways to do that:
Highlight the areas where the panelists agree and don’t agree. For example, you might ask this: “Stan, when it comes to the findings Tanya just shared, your research suggests differently. Can you give us a brief explanation as to why there is this discrepancy?”
Break the topic into segments. Say you are running a panel on investing for retirement. You could create three segments: “long-term investing,” “short-term opportunities,” and “strategies for a riskier approach.” Segments keep a discussion about a broad topic more focused and provide the audience with a narrative flow that helps them to organize, retain, and remember the information presented.
Plan ahead. Before the talk, provide your panelists with the overall themes you want to cover, along with a key question or two – but don’t send all of them! You want the panelists to think through the topics in the moment, rather than being too scripted in their responses.
(You can learn more about developing panel questions here.)
Take Questions From the Audience
There are the questions to ask the panelists and then there are the questions you’ll elicit from the audience. Many panel moderators wait until the end for a show of hands, but there are ways to involve the audience sooner. Here are several ideas:
Break it up. If you have divided the topic into three segments, open the floor for a few questions after each segment.
Poll the audience. Early in the discussion, perhaps right after the introductions, survey audience members to understand their concerns, depth of subject knowledge, viewpoint on the topic, what they want to learn, etc. You can then better tailor the questions and connect the responses to focus on the audience’s concerns and needs.
Encourage debate. Ask the crowd, “How many of you believe that despite your best investment efforts, you’ll still need to work well past 65?” If 80 percent of the hands go up, turn to a panelist and say, “Give me one reason they are wrong.”
How Long Should a Panel Discussion Be?
Time is a crucial element in how to run a panel discussion. Our advice has long been that the right length for a panel presentation – any presentation for that matter – is whatever number of minutes best allows you to convey your key message and accomplish your goal. Perhaps your message would be best told in 20 minutes. Maybe you need 50 minutes to share important perspectives of a particular topic.
Before you and the panelists ever ascend to the stage, make your way to the front of the room, or settle in before your monitors, look at the material and assess the time needed to make it meaningful for your audience. This exercise is an important one in knowing how to moderate a panel. It will help you to identify if you are stretching material too thin, cramming too much into the presentation, or not providing enough time for audience interaction. Here are some considerations:
Stay focused on the key message. With multiple panelists and perspectives, you may be inclined to cover a topic more broadly. This can lead to presentations that run too long, without a clear focus. In general, shorter and more focused presentations are more effective.
Work with the medium. Typically, shorter also is better in the virtual world, given the very real problem of “Zoom fatigue.” That in-person 45-minute discussion with 15 minutes for audience questions might work better as a 20-minute talk with 15 minutes for audience questions for an online presentation.
Honor the material. Even if you are given a set time by an organizer, your topic may be best addressed and discussed in 20 minutes. Stretching what you have to reach some sought-after “ideal” time could lead to a far less effective and compelling presentation.
How To Introduce a Panel Discussion
During the introduction, a moderator establishes a context for the discussion that follows. You can do that by beginning with any number of opens, including those that:
- Set up the topic by describing its relevance or key trends associated with it.
- Cite a key problem that your panel will help solve.
- Identify your panel’s goals.
- Present a mystery or puzzle to be solved by the panelists.
- Ask a rhetorical question.
From there, move on to brief introductions of the panelists, who have ideally provided you with a sentence or two that speaks to the open. For instance, if you set up a problem, your introductions could briefly indicate how each panelist intends to solve it. (“Robert believes universal early childhood education is the answer to …”)
As for logistics, most moderators sit with the panel for the open and introductions. You could consider starting the session and introducing the panel from a standing position from the front of the stage, while the panelists are seated. Then, you can walk to your seat as the audience applauds.
Ultimately, your introduction should be brief and compelling, and set the tone for your discussion, so as to keep the audience focused on the conversation that is to follow.
Keep It Short and To the Point
The first few moments in a panel presentation – any presentation for that matter – can easily be squandered with an opening heavy on salutations, introductions, and logistics. As moderator, you’ll want to deliver an open that is engaging and on message – one that gets directly to the heart of your message and conveys your main takeaway points quickly, creatively, and effectively.
Knowing how to moderate a panel discussion goes beyond logistics. You have to be adept at highlighting the content so that it best serves your audience, your goals, and the goals of your panelists. So ask yourself: What is your primary objective (We call it your ABSO – audience-focused bright shiny object.)? Why are you gathered? What does the audience need to know? Why is this topic worthy of discussion? These questions will not only help you to form the questions to ask a panel of professionals ,but also will help you to launch the discussion. “To those of you who think successfully investing for retirement requires a crystal ball, we’re here to tell you that you are wrong. Our goal today is to provide you with the knowledge and tools you need to make your dollars grow.”
(In this post, we go into further detail about how to create a compelling open even as you cover the necessary “housekeeping” logistics.)
Capture the Audience’s Attention
What makes a good panel discussion? Paying attention to content from the very beginning of the dicussion. You want to generate enthusiasm and excitement for the discussion that is about to follow – and a big part of that is effectively capturing the audience’s attention. Your opening is the hook that encourages your audience that their investment of time will be worth it. Among the more compelling ways to draw your audience into the conversation is through stories. For instance, you could open with a personal story, one that a panelist agreed to share, or a case study of someone who is dealing with or has experienced the topic you will discuss. Stories are not your only tool, however. In this post, we list 25 ways to open a speech – and many will work for a panel discussion, as well.
Is it Important to Memorize the Panelists’ Names and Titles?
Of course, it’s important to know the names of your panelists. But, the matter of memorization is not as important as ensuring that you have the proper title for each participant, the correct pronunciation of each name, and the preferred way they want to be addressed. Do they drop their title? Do they go by a nickname? You can assess all this by talking to your panelists during a pre-panel discussion planning call.
How to Lead a Panel Discussion
When you are the moderator of a panel discussion, you are many things all at once – a timekeeper, an interviewer, an active listener, a presenter, and a liaison with the audience. If you are using slides or other visual supports – such as handouts – you are likely in charge of making sure that component of the talk runs smoothly, too.
You also can be the difference between a confusing exchange of thoughts and an enlightening conversation. Those who know how to moderate a panel effectively typically make time for careful planning in advance and are entirely present during the discussion itself. We’ve already covered some ways to effectively plan for your role. In the following sections, we delve into the specifics of how to be a good moderator and some of the ways you can create a more dynamic and engaging discussion during the panel.
For instance, is it smart to interject your personal opinions or whether you agree or disagree with an answer? Is there a subtle way to guide panelists’ answers so not every response sounds the same? Should you encourage panelists to query one another? Is it OK to ask challenging and provocative questions?
Here’s a roadmap for some of the more difficult paths a moderator will travel.
Should You Avoid Being Biased?
Simply taking a position on a topic doesn’t mean you are one-sided, but if you reject or do not respect other opinions on a particular topic, then you are or will appear biased. If you are argumentative or challenge a point because you do not believe any viewpoint but your own is the right one, you could prevent a more open, dynamic, and meaningful conversation to take place. A good panel moderator’s questions respectfully address different perspectives. This approach provides the audience with a more comprehensive and nuanced view of a subject.
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Use the Two-Answer Rule (Three, at the Most)
You can better manage time by keeping the discussion moving quickly. That means being nimble in juggling the panelists’ responses. For instance, posing the same question to all three panelists every time will likely slow down the energy and establish a predictable pattern that may cause the audience to tune out. Instead, you could limit the response to each question to just two panelists and then pivot to the third by asking for a different answer or introducing a new topic. Here are a couple of examples:
“Paul, your fellow panelists offered big-picture perspectives on the problem, can you provide some concrete examples as to how this problem affects the average person.”
“In my mind, that issue raises another important one, that being XX, Paul, do you see those two issues as being linked?”
Ultimately, good panel discussion questions and deft management of the responses will help to keep the pacing crisp and the energy high.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask the Hard Questions
During your pre-panel planning, look for areas of disagreement. A little debate and dissension among your panelists – when productive – are good things. It keeps the panel interesting and shows the audience that you are not afraid to challenge preconceived notions, assumptions, ideologies, and principles. Also, don’t be afraid to lay ground rules for the length of responses. Mention to your panelists that shorter answers are generally better than longer ones and you will jump in if answers go past, say, the one-minute mark. You’ll know best how to moderate a panel Q&A by first asking some questions of your own. Will you encourage your panelists to question one another or defend or argue their ideas directly with one another? While this can create some sizzle, just make sure they are aware of how you plan to steer the discussion back to your questions and those of the audience.
How to Close a Panel Discussion
As you have now learned, there are many ways to demonstrate how to be a good panel moderator, and the final moments of a panel discussion are no exception. This is the last chance for you and the panelists to, among other things:
- Inspire the audience to dream big.
- Move those gathered to act.
- Persuade participants to change their perspectives or behavior.
- Reiterate key ideas or concepts.
- Delineate next steps.
Even if panelists were clear and concise in their responses to your questions and there was a dynamic and illuminating exchange during the audience Q&A, the audience does not always infer what you want them to do next.
The overarching takeaway in how to effectively moderate a panel discussion is this: You are not only putting on your presentation but also managing the presentation of several others. How you structure the final moments will help the panelists to best reiterate and clarify their main points, help you to connect them to the main takeaway of the discussion, and help the audience hear the message and know what it is that you hope they take away from the talk – additional knowledge, a new understanding, a new perspective, how to make a difference, etc.
Let the Panelists Know You’re Wrapping Up
If you have been having an engaging, dynamic, and illuminating conversation (which the preceding moderator tips for a panel invariably helped to make happen!), you’ll want to help land the conversation to its proper ending. This is where that pre-panel planning call or online meeting will come in handy. Ideally, you’ve explained to the panelists how you intend to organize closing moments.
First off, so that you are not rushing at the end to deliver your close, make sure someone is keeping time. If that is not possible, you do it. You likely have a timer in your pocket or purse – your phone. Second, determine how you are going to transition from audience Q&A to final thoughts. (Questions to ask: Are you taking it back from the floor after the final audience question to ask a final question of your own? Are you planning to deliver a close that’s engaging and on message and issues a call to action, rather than asking for final thoughts from the panelists? Do both?) Third, make sure panelists are clear about how you expect them to participate in the final minutes.
Leave Time for Final Thoughts
While not everyone agrees that giving panelists time for closing remarks is a good idea, you may want to provide such an opportunity. As with the introductions, you can make this moment more meaningful and on message. For instance, you could offer a final question of your own – one that is close-ended and forward-looking and hasn’t been addressed in the previous discussion. Something like this: “We’ve talked about how technology is going to change the workforce over the next three years. What do you see as the one change that will have the greatest impact on job seekers during that time?”
Make Sure There’s a “Takeaway” From the Discussion
If you have asked that closed-ended discussion, you can take those concluding statements and tie them back to the key message – the one takeaway – you want the audience to remember. In line with the example in the previous section, you might say, “While the panelists differ on what change will have the greatest effect, they agree that the best way to deal with these changes is to seek out continuous job training throughout your career.” This one takeaway, or “call to action,” moves the knowledge your audience has received into action. (Here are some additional tips and techniques on how to deliver a clear call to action.)
Extra Tips for Moderating a Panel Discussion
You’ve inevitably seen the typical panel setup: A row of chairs behind a long table where individual microphones will amplify the voices of three to four panelists. The moderator is likely to sit at one end or stand behind a lectern. This isn’t exactly a lively setting. The panelists can’t easily see one another. They have to hunch over the table to speak. And, a table separates them from the audience – a barrier that often makes connections difficult. Too often, an audience may feel as if they are being lectured to or stumbled into a meeting, rather than participating in a dynamic exchange of information and ideas. You can change this by:
Removing the table. Look for a more casual way to gather and seat the panelists so there is not a physical barrier between the panelists and the audience.
Use stools or chairs. When you position stools or chairs at the front of the stage, it can convey a more casual feeling – a vibe that is closer to a gathering in a living room than a boardroom. Hopefully, you can secure some plush armchairs for the sake of your panelists. High stools, preferably those with a back, can work, too. Just be wary of creating issues for participants who might be wearing dresses or skirts and may find either arrangement difficult to manage.
Adjust the seats. You can avoid the need for panelists to squirm this way and that to make eye contact with other panelists by creating a U-shape of the chairs. Grab one of the end seats. This will help you to not only listen to the panelists words but also see all their nonverbal cues and reactions.
Let organizers know early on that you plan to stray from the typical presentation setup, so that the layout is as you expected it on the day of the talk.
Number of panelists
Two, three, four, five panelists? Is there an ideal number? If you invite too many, you may not have enough time to get to multiple viewpoints and perspectives and the value the panelists provide may be diminished. If you invite too few, your audience might not get the full picture of the topic that you are covering. For a typical hour-long panel, we’ve found three panelists tend to be a good number, although two to four can also work.
Beyond the number, it’s important to invite panelists that have diverse experiences, backgrounds, viewpoints, career paths, etc., which, in turn, will likely bring greater context to the topic. A panel of three participants with similar world views is more likely to deliver a ho-hum experience, than one where panelists hold diverse and distinct viewpoints. This dynamic can help to spark debate, attract the audience’s attention, and bring a greater understanding and depth to a particular subject. (You can learn more about inviting panelists in this post.)
Brush Up on Your Public Speaking Skills
As panel moderator, you’ll want the audience’s attention to be on the panelists. However, your communication skills will be in the spotlight, too. Are you a speaker who projects confidence, competence, and credibility? A successful moderator is often a successful solo presenter, too. Whether you are new to speaking or a more seasoned presenter, brushing up on your public speaking skills prior to your hosting duties will invariably make for a more effective and engaging session. (Here’s a look at how Throughline approaches public speaking training, as well as what you should look for in a presentation training company.)
Do You Need to Know the Topic Inside and Out?
Say you’ve gathered a panel of experts that has a deep and distinct understanding of the topic. Do you also need to know the topic inside and out? The simple answer is no. The moderator’s job is to be knowledgeable enough to ask smart questions that elicit sharp insights, interesting perspectives, and valuable knowledge from the panelists. You need to be knowledgeable enough in the topic to respond spontaneously to lines of inquiry that arise during conversation that are not covered in your “prepared” list of questions. You have enough jobs and responsibilities to tackle when it comes to how to moderate a panel discussion. Creating an expectation that you must be as well-versed and knowledgeable as the panelists may cause unnecessary anxiety.
Get the Audience Involved
Some of the same skills needed in knowing how to moderate a panel of speakers will help to get your audience involved. Just as you work to draw connections – and highlight differences – between panelists and create a more meaningful discussion by staying on track, you can do the same in the way you draw the audience into the conversation. In addition to asking for questions, you could:
- Ask for short, personal stories or examples that resonate with the points the panelists have been making.
- Seek out experiences that ran counter to the assertions that have been made.
- (If you are running a panel that seeks to present a solution) Encourage the audience to provide other fixes, or comment on how the proposed fix will make a difference.
If you are giving a virtual presentation, you might consider using interactive devices such as surveys, doing a “lightning round” to ask each person on the call to offer an opinion on the key matter at hand in 30 seconds or less, or inviting participants to raise a virtual hand to ask a question.
Don’t Use Slide Decks, Unless …
There is always an exception to the rule, but, generally, we advise leaving the PowerPoint slides (and other visuals) behind, as they can become more of a distraction than an aid. That said, there are some instances where slides and other visuals are helpful. These include:
Virtual presentations. Asking your audience to stare at a monitor full of faces for anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes is a test of resilience and interest. In the online world, slides help to break the pattern and provide visual interest for a medium that can quickly lead to fatigue.
Emotional topics. If you are addressing a topic such as a refugee crisis or childhood poverty and hunger, a few photos or a short video clip could help the audience to forge stronger emotional bonds with the people whose lives are being affected.
Dramatic statistics. A well-designed chart featuring a sharply rising trend line or highlighting a marked disparity between two data sets could be used as a backdrop to seek the panelists’ reactions to it.
Is It OK to Cut Off a Panelist?
For the audience’s sake, a moderator needs to guide the panel discussion so that it is a meaningful exchange of ideas, a healthy debate, an illuminating conversation, etc. For that to happen, panelists must be respectful of other’s opinions (even if they disagree) and the other panelists’ “airtime.” In all likelihood, you’ll find yourself presiding over a panel of speakers who follow proper panel etiquette.
If, however, you face a panelist who intentionally or unintentionally is dominating the discussion with long-winded responses, adversarial claims, or engaging in personal attacks of other panelists, it’s OK to call out that behavior. For example, to counter a wordy panelist, you might say, “Sarah, excuse me for interjecting here. Clearly, you are passionate about this subject. However, we need to move to the next question, so we can get to another important point that needs to be discussed …” (The same skills that help a solo presenter to conduct an effective Q&A can be used by a moderator. You can learn those tips and techniques in our four-part series, How To Ace Your Next Q&A.)
The question of how to moderate a panel is not an easy one to answer. There are many moving parts, including the responsibility you have to yourself, your panelists, and the audience to make the audience’s and panelists’ investment of time worth it.
By using these tools, techniques, and strategies, and investing time into proper preparation, planning, and practice, you will be well on your way to becoming an expert panel moderator.