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

By | 2016-10-24T14:28:15+00:00 March 7th, 2006|Categories: Pitching and Presenting|Tags: |47 Comments

About the Author:

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

47 Comments

  1. alek March 7, 2006 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    I would add that as a moderator, you should have a few questions in your back pocket in case the audiance is quiet. Plus consider using one really good question as the segway from their presentations to the Q&A.
    alek
    P.S. Guy: Blog entry filed from gate 69 at SFO?

  2. Guy Kawasaki March 7, 2006 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    Alek,
    No kidding. I feel like I live at SFO. Nice addition–I’ll update.
    Guy

  3. Jeff Barson March 7, 2006 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    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.

  4. Khurram March 7, 2006 at 9:44 pm - Reply

    If a panelist is stupid enough to say he knew the bubble would burst after having invested in discountdogfood.com, he doesn’t deserve to look smart anyway! 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.

  5. Brandon Hopkins March 7, 2006 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    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

  6. Zoli Erdos March 7, 2006 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    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 🙂

  7. David March 7, 2006 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    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.

  8. chy March 7, 2006 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    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.

  9. chy March 7, 2006 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    dat

  10. Deepak Shenoy March 7, 2006 at 10:42 pm - Reply

    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.

  11. Anton March 8, 2006 at 1:26 am - Reply

    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:
    http://www.drunkenblog.com/evening_at_adler/

  12. Audiolathe March 8, 2006 at 3:25 am - Reply

    “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

  13. Adam C. Engst March 8, 2006 at 4:53 am - Reply

    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

  14. Douglas H March 8, 2006 at 5:04 am - Reply

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

  15. Face2Face Meetingsnet March 8, 2006 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Moderator tips

    Guy Kawasaki hits it out of the ballpark again, this time with a post called How to Be a Great Moderator. Anyone who moderates a panel should memorize these tips and, more importantly, follow them. My favorite:
    Involve the audience. Moderators shoul…

  16. alek March 8, 2006 at 8:53 am - Reply

    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.

  17. PawełK March 8, 2006 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Kawsky is not a Polish name. Maybe “Kowalski”?

  18. Ed Daniel March 8, 2006 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    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.

  19. Golden Practices March 8, 2006 at 8:10 pm - Reply

    Presenting Skills: Keys to Moderating a Panel

    Another gem post of Top Ten Tips by Guy Kawasaki covers How to Be a Great Moderator. He covers preparing yourself, not over-preparing your panelists, making them look smart, and keeping things moving. My favorite tip discusses not letting panelists spe…

  20. Guy Kawasaki March 8, 2006 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Ed:
    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?
    Guy

  21. dano March 9, 2006 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    “Never let moderators use anything special.”
    Exceptions may be made for moderators as adept at prop magic as Richard Feynman.

  22. ClarkW March 10, 2006 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    |
    [“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.

  23. gapingvoid March 12, 2006 at 2:42 pm - Reply

    the coolest guy

    [Inspired by Guy Kawasaki’s post.]…

  24. Information Narcosis March 12, 2006 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Guy Kawasaki Disses PowerPoint

    Guy Kawasaki: 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 encounte…

  25. Lee Harvey Osmond March 13, 2006 at 4:11 am - Reply

    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.

  26. GroundBuzz March 14, 2006 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Moderating a panel is harder than it looks

    Ive served on a few panels over the years on issues as varied as government relations and lobbying, CRM, Iranian-American civic participation and even international travel. The more panels that I sit on and the more that I attend, the more I&#8…

  27. j's scratchpad March 14, 2006 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    2 on Presenting: How to Moderate a Panel and BusinessWeek Offers Presentation Courses

    So, yeah, so you’ve noticed I don’t have as many speaking gigs this spring as I did this past fall.

  28. Futurelab's Blog March 15, 2006 at 4:15 am - Reply

    How To Be a Great Moderator

    by: Guy Kawasaki 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…

  29. Futurelab's Blog March 15, 2006 at 4:34 am - Reply

    How To Be a Great Moderator

    by: Guy Kawasaki 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…

  30. communication 101 March 16, 2006 at 7:37 am - Reply

    The Role of Moderator at Emergency Press Confere…

    Participated a mock emergency press conference
    organized by a PR firm.
    Crisis scenario; Fire accident at the auto parts factory,
    killing 2 employees, injuring dozens who are now in hospital.
    Little damage to the neighbors.
    Assuming 2 hours h…

  31. Christopher St. John March 19, 2006 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    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.

  32. AttentionMax March 21, 2006 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Secret To Great Panel Presentations: Lose The PPT

    Guy Kawasaki in his common-sense post about how to be a great conference panel moderator:Never let panelists use PowerPoint. Even if the panelists are CEOs and Nobel Prize winners, never let them give a brief PowerPoint presentation. If o…

  33. LUX.ET.UMBRA March 23, 2006 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    How to be a great moderator

    Guy Kawasaki has some more words of wisdom for moderating a panel of people. Don’t over-prepare the panelists Do prepare yourself in advance Never let panelists use PowerPoint Never let panelists use anything special Make them introduce themselves in t…

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  35. Ved April 13, 2006 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    Good info as well good comments.

  36. Gay Gloryhole April 23, 2006 at 4:05 am - Reply

    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.

  37. gomes blog April 26, 2006 at 4:20 am - Reply

    gomez article

    it’s my opinion on that theme

  38. Zoli's Blog June 1, 2006 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    How To Be a Good Panel Audience – Find out at the Greenhouse

    There are there roles in a conference/ panel discussion:
    The Moderator – Guy Kawasaki has his advice for them: How To Be a Great Moderator.
    The P…

  39. Power Presentations June 7, 2006 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Moderating Guy, The Moderator Guy

    Guy Kawasaki, the legendary Apple Computer evangelist, revered marketing guru, dynamic keynote speaker and published author has now added a new arrow to his quiver: prolific blogger. Guy’s blogs are a wonderful cornucopia, along with his usual attendan…

  40. alex on Business Quests November 27, 2006 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    On facilitation

    A couple of days ago Guy Kawasaki posted some excellent points on moderating a panel. It’s good read for anyone who is in a role of facilitation with any size of audience. I think a lot of what Guy says

  41. zoe January 11, 2007 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    i wud like 2 b a modarator

  42. China Law Blog January 15, 2007 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    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?

  43. mira March 13, 2007 at 10:11 pm - Reply

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

  44. kuria March 22, 2007 at 2:53 am - Reply

    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.

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  46. The Client Side Blog with Michael Seaton March 17, 2008 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    The Responsible Host – Sure Fire Ways To Enhance Your Ability To Moderate A Panel

    I was not there, but have been witness to it before. The host (or hostess), moderator or interviewer who, for one reason or another, just didn’t deliver. In case you missed it, there was a lot of commentary and buzz…

  47. The Korean Law Blog March 19, 2015 at 10:57 pm - Reply

    Got this sent to me, since I was to moderate a legal seminar in Seoul, Korea. Thanks for sharing guy. My little blog is at: www.thekoreanlawblog.com

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