Monday, July 25, 2011

Everything In Moderation: How To Give Good Panel

My mother always says, much to my embarrassment,
 "Jeffrey started talking in sentences when he was 10 months old... and he hasn't shut up since!" 
I suppose, if I am honest with myself, she is not entirely wrong, and I might be guilty of liking the sound of my own voice. Fortunately, throughout my life and career I've had the opportunity to speak publicly, whether on stage in a role (from the Cowardly Lion in a children's theater group production of "The Wizard of Oz" at age 10 to playing the role of Marcellus in a semi-pro production of "Hamlet" at Cornell at age 20) or in more recent years, speaking regularly at industry events and conferences. I truly enjoy public speaking, especially about topics I am passionate and excited about, and I try to bring a new challenge and experience to every presentation I give or panel I sit on.

The Moderator

Recently I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the IAB Mobile Marketplace. This was actually my first time acting as the moderator. It was fun and rewarding, but very different from actually being the speaker or panelist. It was a new challenge and, determined to be successful, I spent a lot of time preparing, both with regard to the specific topic and questions for my panel, as well as researching the "art" of being a good moderator. As always, there were some great insights available online. I was particularly inspired by two blog posts on how to moderate a great panel, one by Jeremiah Owyang and the other by Guy Kawasaki. Both offered great practical advice that I took to heart and I think went a long way to helping make my first foray as "moderator" a successful one, and more importantly, making the panel successful at delivering valuable content in an engaging way, satisfying the paying audience. Here are some of the key things I learned from my experience moderating a panel, including some of the tips I utilized from Jeremiah and Guy:

1) Talk as little as possible. It is not about you (the moderator). It is about guiding the panelists and getting them to engage and reveal insights of value to the audience. You should never answer your own questions. Get the panelists to give the answers (by poking and probing them, if need be.) 
2) Meet with the panelists for 15 minutes or so just before going onstage. Remind them to speak to the audience and not to you. Review the gist of the questions you will be asking, but not all of them, as you will want some spontaneity. Remind them that is ok for them to disagree with each other (if that's what they believe) and they should feel free to jump in with differing opinions. In your "backstage" discussion, plant some seeds for good responses they can use, so the information will be fresh in their minds when you ask. 
3) If at all possible, sit on stage with the panelists rather than stand apart from them at a podium. It makes for more natural conversation and keeps the audience focused on where the action is. 
4) Use notes, and keep them on "old school" index cards. Keep notes and each of your potential questions on a separate index card. It is much easier to be subtle about having notes when they are on cards, rather than an iPad or other device (it is not about looking cool and current, it is about generating a great conversation). Index cards make it easy to casually flip through and decide on the next question based on the flow of the conversation. 
5) LISTEN, and therefore be prepared to disregard your notes and prepared questions. As moderator, you cannot afford to zone out thinking about your next question. You have to be actively listening to guide the conversation. If there is a lull, you need to be ready to step in and prod, or ask a new question to keep the momentum of the conversation flowing. If someone gives a general answer, don't be afraid to dive in and challenge them to be more specific. Ask them to "give examples" of what they mean. When one person is done answering, ask another panelist if they agree (especially if you know they are competitors or are likely to have different approaches.) 
6) Keep track of the time and don't be shy about cutting people off. At most conferences these days there is a clock or timer somewhere visible indicating the time remaining in the session. Audiences expect and deserve to have time to ask questions, and some of the best content gems often come as the result of audience questions. Agree beforehand with the organizers and panelists how much time you want to set aside for audience questions, and then it is your job to make sure to end the conversation and open the floor to questions at the appropriate time. If a panel ends with no time for audience questions, then the moderator has failed to be in control, and the audience will not have had the chance to fully benefit from the knowledge of the panelists.

Granted, I am a moderating newbie, but these are some of the things I gleaned and did my best to adhere to in the hopes of making my panel a successful one. In all, it was a great experience, and one I hope to repeat soon (as well as continue as a speaker and panelist.)

Do you agree with these suggestions? Do you have any other moderating tips you would add? Please contribute them in the comments.

Below is an excerpt from the Agency Buyers Panel I moderated at the 2011 IAB Mobile Marketplace.



Photo Credit: razihusin - Fotolia.com
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