How to Moderate Panels that Don’t Suck

Advice on Moderating Engaging Panels from Kara DeFrias

Last month, inspired by her article “To Bore or Not to Bore: How Theatre Can Save Your Conference Panel,” we sat down with Kara DeFrias for a special event to discuss how to moderate engaging panels. 

Kara’s background spans industries. She’s worked in both private and public sectors including working on the World Cup press operations team and producing TEDx events all over the world.

She has also worked as Director of UX for then Vice President Biden under the Obama administration. Following this, she served as Senior Advisor in the Office of Technology in the Biden-Harris White House. Kara is an award-winning facilitator and keynote speaker.

With experience both in front of the mic and behind the scenes producing, she had a ton of great advice for our attendees on moderating engaging panels. Below, find some of her tips and advice that we are excited to share with you.

Prepare and then prepare some more

Preparation is one way to make sure you’re taking out as many “what-ifs” as possible. It sets the groundwork for your event to go smoothly.

When planning for your event, create a planning document. It should have two components: logistics and your script. Logistics will include things like the start time, the stage set up, slides, etc. 

“You should always ask [the event organizer] questions. Some of the things I usually ask are what the stage set up is like, what are the seating options, do you want 16 by 9 or 4 by 3 for the slide deck. I keep the slide decks simple. Make sure you have a crisp, clear picture of yourself and the panelists. Try to seat them so they line up with their names on the slide deck. Have their twitter handle, their title, their organization. Find out how they’re going to mic you, and what time of day you’re going on. You need all this information so you can make a doc for the panelists that tells them what time they need to arrive, when they’re being mic-ed. Finding all of that logistical information will help the day-of go much smoother.” – Kara DeFrias

For the script, you will be writing it so you want to make sure that you’re comfortable delivering it.

“It’s one thing to write, but it’s another how it sounds out loud. Once you’ve done your first pass at your script, say it all out loud. You’re going to catch words and phrases that when it’s written look beautiful but when you hear it, it just sounds off.”

Set objectives for your audience

When you’re mapping out your event, consider: 

-How do you want your audience to feel?

-What do you want them to say?

-What do you want them to do?

Above all else, provide your audience with actionable content.

“You thought about questions that [your panelists] will be good at answering. But more importantly will be actionable content for the audience. Your ultimate goal above all of your objectives is that your audience is walking away from your panel with one thing they can do immediately.”

Over communicate with your panel

As a moderator, your job is to make sure your panelists shine, are comfortable, and have great conversations with takeaways for your audience.

One way to do that is to make sure you’re preparing your panelists. Share the questions with them ahead of time and make sure to get them to sign off on their introductions.

“[Sharing the questions ahead of time] is a good show of respect. If there are any questions I don’t want to answer, I can strike them. Or if there’s any I want to re-word. Even the intro. Make sure you send panelists their intro in case they want something accented a little more, or they want something toned down or things said differently. A lot of this happens beforehand.”

Be the One to Make the Intros

As the guide, you will want to make the introductions so you can get right to the conversation quickly. If you’ve prepared and gotten panelists to sign off, then you’re all set to jump right in.

“It makes for a smoother segway [to introduce the panelists yourself.] When you ask someone to introduce themselves before they answer the first question you give them, if there are two minutes for their answer, they will take one minute and 45 seconds on their intro. They’re going to want to fill the space. It steals away from the good stuff, which is the content in their answer.”

Taking this pressure off of your speakers also allows them to focus on being present in the conversation. 

Make sure to give yourself plenty of time

You’ll want to make sure to give yourself enough time to run through any last minute details or prep, adequate time for the event itself, and also time to thank your panelists and decompress after the talk.

“I send the invite for the time the event is but I also send them a blocked calendar invite for 15-30 minutes before and tell them to please join. I also block the half hour after the event. For virtual events, make sure you’re getting them 15 minutes before. Make sure you have time for run-off or to give high-fives and shower some love on the speaker(s) after.”

To Q&A or not to Q&A?

Every panel is different, so you should decide whether or not to offer audience Q&A on a case by case basis. There are a few factors that might help you to determine whether you want to include this option for your event.

Kara shared some insight on the topic:

 “It depends. If it’s a contentious topic, if it’s contentious speakers [I might avoid audience Q&A]. Your job is to help them shine but also to protect them. You don’t want them to get a question that they’re uncomfortable answering. You don’t want to be at a point where they’re getting into it live with an audience member.”

Whether or not you open up questions to the audience might depend on time constraints, who your audience is, who your panelists are, what the topic is, and so on. If you decide to open up the floor to questions, decide whether to. allow attendees to ask questions themselves or ask them to write their question down so it can be passed along to the moderator.

As a moderator, you can decide whether to filter questions, re-word, or even combine.

“I will rarely ask a question verbatim. You might see two or three questions that are similar enough that you can combine. That way you’ve answered three questions at once.”

Be an advocate for your panelists

Kara spoke about using your leverage as a moderator to bring people on stage.

“You have the power as the moderator in many cases to say ‘this is who I’m bringing with me.’ I have never had anyone come back and say ‘no, that’s a too diverse panel.’ You have leverage, they asked you to moderate. Do the work of putting together a panel that reflects the topic in a way you feel proud of.”

Also consider the dynamic of the panelists you are grouping together.

“Who are you putting on stage together? Are they comparable in title and experience and responsibility? Not because anyone is more fancy than another but because you want to make sure they have a rich conversation and they’re speaking the same language.”

In her article, Kara likens this to being the casting director. You want to make sure your panelists have a chemistry where they can build off of each other’s answers and give the audience a rich conversation

“There are ground rules I put in place. Feel free to speak over someone but in a respectful way. Meaning, if someone has an answer and you have a ‘yes, and.’ The vibe I always tell people is old friends catching up in a coffee shop. Old friends catching up in a coffee shop will jump on each other and add to each other’s answers. It creates something where you actually feel like these people know each other, even if they’ve only met on zoom the day of the conference.”

Wrap up your event 

“I usually have a wrap up where I ask something like ‘what is one thing you want the audience to walk away remembering today?’ If you throw it out to the panel, a couple of speakers will usually jump in and answer.”

Having a wrap up helps you segway to the end of the event, your final task as the guide. Make sure your audience leaves with a takeaway as they reach their destination.

Thanks to Kara’s advice, we hope you feel set up for success next time you are moderating a panel. If you have an idea for a panel but have been hesitating to put it in motion, we hope Kara’s advice empowers you to finally take that first step. 

Thank you to Kara DeFrias for chatting with us and sharing her tips and thoughtful insight. Stay up to date with her on twitter @karadefrias

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