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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” 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