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March 07, 2006

How To Be a Great Moderator

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How many times have you watched a panel and thought that it was entertaining and informative? Your answer is probably a small number. Moderating a panel is deceptively hard--harder, in fact, than keynoting because the quality of the panelists is usually beyond your control. Here's how to be a great moderator.

  • Don't over-prepare the panelists. The more panelists prepare in advance, the more likely they will be boring. If you provide all the questions in advance, many panelists will prepare carefully-crafted, devoid-of-content responses--in the worst case, even tapping PR people for help. The most you should provide is the first two or three questions to make panelists feel comfortable and “prepared.”
  • Do prepare yourself in advance. Moderators need to prepare more than panelists because they need to be able to stir up the pot with questions about the latest industry controversies and hot issues. It's hard to do this in real time, so prepare the questions in advance using multiple research resources. If you don't have enough industry knowledge to stir up the pot, then decline the invitation to moderate the panel.
  • Never let panelists use PowerPoint. Even if the panelists are CEOs and Nobel Prize winners, never let them give a “brief” PowerPoint presentation. If one panelist uses PowerPoint, everyone else will want to. Then the session will encounter the technical difficulty of making multiple laptops work with the projector or the challenge of integrating presentations into one. Forget it.
  • Never let panelists use anything special. Suppose everyone accepts the no-PowerPoint rule, but a panelist comes up with the clever idea of showing a “brief” corporate video. Again, the answer should be, “No can do.” Frankly, if a panelist needs either a PowerPoint presentation or a video, he's probably not articulate enough to be on the panel, so get rid of him if you can.
  • Make them introduce themselves in thirty seconds. Give panelists thirty seconds to introduce themselves. The moderator shouldn't read each panelist's bio because he will inevitably (a) mispronounce something (I didn't know I was Polish until I was introduced as “Guy Kowalski”); (b) get some fact wrong “Oh, you didn't graduate from Harvard Business School, you just attended a one-week executive boondoggle there;” or (c) fail to highlight some crucial part of the panelist's background.
  • Break eye contact with the panelists. Look at the panel, ask a question, and then look at the audience. Do not continue eye contact with the panelists because you want them to speak directly to the audience, not to the moderator. Also, don't hesitate to tell panelists to speak louder or get closer to the microphone.
  • Make everyone else look smart. The goal of the moderator is to make the panelists look smart. It is not to make himself look smart--or grab the most attention. Moderators can make panelists look smart in two ways: first, give them a few softball questions that they can knock out of the park. For example, “What do you view as the most pressing issues of the industry?” Second, extract good information out of the panelists by rephrasing, summarizing, or clarifying what they said. A good moderator accounts for only 10% of the speaking time of a panel--she is the “invisible hand,” not the star.
  • Stand up for the audience. Making panelists look smart does not mean letting them bull shitake the audience. My theory is that the moderator is called the moderator is because her role is to ensure that there is only a moderate level of bull shitake and sales pitches. A good moderator is the audience's advocate for truth, insight, and brevity--any two will do. When a panelist makes a sales pitch or tells lies, you are morally obligated to smack him around in front of the audience.
  • Involve the audience. Moderators should allocate approximately 30% of the duration of the panel to questions from the audience. Any more, and the audience will run out of high-quality questions. Any less and the audience will feel like it did not participate. However, don't feel obligated to accept any stupid questions from the audience any more than you accept stupid answers from the panelists. Just in case, always have a few good questions in your hip pocket just in case no one in the audience has a question (thanks for the suggestion, Alek). Or, even better, you could “seed” the audience in advance.
  • Seize the day. In my book, a moderator would get an A+ if he can catch a panelist “in the act.” For example, many venture capitalists cop the attitude that “We knew that the dotcom bubble would burst, so we were very careful about what we invested in.” The moderator should win a prize if he can come back with, “Then why did you invest in discountdogfood.com?” I realize this conflicts with “make everyone else look smart” but moderating is a complex activity--what can I say?

Written at: United flight #468, San Diego to San Francisco


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Good ideas and tips, but i think its important 4 the panels to use the powerpoint. some times its help alot in understanding topics. any way great mind is from having to moderate a session for young people soon. wish me luck and give more advice on that.

whoa..this sure helps me a lot..gonna remember it..have a moderator job tmrw..wish me luck!

Fantastic. A friend sent this to me because he knew I will be moderating at a seminar soon. So one more question. I am tempted to e-mail this link to the panelists and tell them I read this on Guy Kowalski's/Kowasaki's blog and this will be how I intend to handle things. Good idea? Bad idea?

i wud like 2 b a modarator

Bad panels are like focus groups. If you ask for an opinion, you'll get one even if it wasn't there before you asked.

Good info as well good comments.

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Even better, just don't have panels at all. Turn then into a series of micro-presentations from the individual panelists if you must have something called a "panel" (this worked well at the SXSWi microformats panel), but getting rid of the cursed things entirely would be better.

Of course, to see some really special moderating, you need a really special panel. I'd go for lots and and lots of really thin panellists, all called Rod, and when you put them all together, they can turn highly critical, in an instant. And that's when you find out if chose the right moderator.


["The goal of the moderator is to make the panelists look smart."] ??

...if that's the goal of the moderator -- then the audience shouldn't bother showing up. Let the panelists hire their own publicists.

The goal should be enlightenment of the audience thru effective communication.

The premise of any "panel" is that the panelists possess significant information that they will communicate to the audience.

If that 'information' can be identified beforehand .... there's no reason to hold a live panel -- the info can be written down or taped ... and be distributed to any potential audience.

That's the case with most panels -- they are primarily 'entertainment' and 'marketing' vehicles ... rather than learning mechanisms.

"Never let moderators use anything special."

Exceptions may be made for moderators as adept at prop magic as Richard Feynman.


I will write an entry about "how to introduce a product on the Internet." I guarantee you, however, that it will piss off some A listers...but that's half the fun, right?


Thanks for the tips.

I'm preparing a podcast to help evangelise a software product. It would be great to get your thoughts on the right way to do this.

Kawsky is not a Polish name. Maybe "Kowalski"?

Ditto what Douglas H said - if you are truly prepared as a moderator, you won't make the flub-ups you mention above and often easier for a 3rd party to toot someone else's horn.

You are welcome on the addition - yea, I forgot to mention about seeding someone in the audiance with a question or two - I used to do this all the time for RMIUG - just breaks the ice and gets things going.

Interesting. I also thought you were repeating yourself until I re-read the other article. Nice post. :)

In my experience, Guy, most panelists (including myself) have trouble introducing themselves as well as a third-party can do it. The problem is that you want the panelists to sound like experts and generally great people, but most people are too embarrassed to plug themselves that way, whereas they're happier to sit back and let a moderator tell the audience all the cool things they've done. I'd put this one in the research category - the moderator should have researched each panelists sufficiently to know how to pronounce names and get details right. And there's no harm in checking with them first.

cheers... -Adam

"An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing."

Sorry gratuitous quoting from Murphy's Technology Laws http://cecilia.typepad.com/digital_digressions/2006/03/murphys_technol.html

Really interesting debates happen when you get the panel just right - a balance between hardcore experts (specialists in their fields) and people who can see the forest for the trees - oh and a few controversial figures who are known to disagree with a few of the panelists and not being afraid to say so. Hopefully as a moderator you have a hand in determining who is on the panel too and can figure out how to stir things up a bit.

Mind you I'm having a deja vu here Guy... Didn't you do an article about moderation a few months ago? Naah sorry - it was about BEING on a panel.. http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/01/how_to_kick_but.html

Evening at Adler
I found this panel and moderator combo to be really enjoyable. DB handles the evening with aplomb and grace. IMHO, a great example of implementing many of the ideas above:

If there's too many audience questions, make sure you get people to restrict themselves to one or two questions, with no follow ups.

And sometimes, when people go on and on with a question, cut 'em short, rephrase and direct it at the panel.


But as a moderator I guess the trick is to catch him in the act and help him get out of the hole by following it up with a few soft ball questions.

I've seen some moderators have audience members write their questions down. Then, they can select the ones they like (or slip in their own). This is easier if you have an assistant.

Don't write up all your questions in advance and stick to them no mattar what direction the discussion takes.. it will make YOU look dumb :-)

Moderator preparation?

Most moderators only know the topic and don't really know much about it.

They are left with comments like, "Wow", "Interesting", and "Let's see what the audience has to say about that."

Brandon Hopkins

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