How to moderate like a Boss

The first time I was asked to speak in public it was to moderate a panel. If I remember correctly, it was for an event on risk management held in Frankfurt. I was deep in the risk world at that time – it was the era of Basel II and super fast Monte Carlo simulations. A marketing woman handed me a list of questions – so vague and insipid, I threw them away. The people in the room worked in compliance and risk management at European banks. They wanted to dig deeper into how to calculate operational risk in relation to Basel II (it all has to do with double counting, which given that this was pre-crash, might not have been a bad thing). What they didn’t want was a question – and I kid you not – that read: “When you say your Monte Carlo simulations are really, really fast, are they *really*, really fast?” Seriously. I. Kid. You. Not. 😐

Anyway, over the years I have basically moderated and put together more events and panels and webcasts than you have had hot dinners. I have failed and learned and figured out what works and what doesn’t work based on data, and iteration and pivoting (in the old days this was called “experience”). My confidence that I can advise you how to moderator any panel – like a Boss – is based on my extensive experience. This confidence, coming from someone like myself, seems to rub some people the wrong way. (However, whether or not there are those who find my authority and views on the subject of event curation and management ‘aggressive’ – well that is a blog for another time. 🙂 )

First off, whether this depends on whether you put the panel together yourself, or a conference organizer constructs the speakers, it should go without saying that if you are presented with a panel of four, middle-aged white men – start over.

A moderator is not a panelist.

The moderators job is to pull out, guide and orchestrate a conversation between panelists. It is not to *be* a panelist. Unless someone says something that is wrong or inaccurate – the moderators views or opinions are not priority (I have seen this so many times, a moderator that would rather have been on the panel. If you wanted to be on the panel, you should have been on the panel)

If your panel is too large, fragmented and too long, you will lose your audience.

A panel should be no more than four people, plus a moderator, and run no longer than 45 minutes. Why four? Any more and no one will get a chance to speak. You want a bit of a discussion and debate on stage. If you start heading towards six or seven (I have seen nine) people on stage, they are basically introducing themselves and that’s it. Also, a panel is best with three people, but inevitably, someone drops out before the event and you need a spare.

(Side note – there are a variety of reasons why a person needs to pull out of a commitment to an event or a speaking arrangement. But an event is a jigsaw puzzle. A good event organizer will make sure there are additional pieces and buffers for time delays. But when you pull out of a speaking arrangement the night before, or the day of, that upsets the jigsaw puzzle. And it’s a dick move. You either make a commitment to show up, or you say no from the beginning. Your absence from an event, at the last minute, leaves a hole that the organizer does not have a chance to fill. And it is basic disrespect for the organizers – usually made by people who think events are just ‘thrown together’ – when actually, there is a bit of work involved.) Rant over.

So, why no longer than 45 minutes? Because people get bored. We did quite a few webcasts at Finextra, most of which were live panel discussions. You could watch the audience log on and then drift off, during the discussion. The drift off point was usually around 42 minutes.

Don’t have a script, but still send questions

Contact all your panelists and send around an email with proposed questions. This is not a script. In fact, I advise against scripts. However, since most panels are live you want to avoid someone looking at you blankly when you ask a question because A: They don’t know the answer or B: Their corporate comms have told them not to talk about that subject. (However, I once had a panel where I was told, under no circumstances, was I to ask about blockchain, because the guy on the panel didn’t know anything about blockchain – then he ended up not shutting up about blockchain when on stage.)

By sending the questions in advance – people will have an idea of what you will ask and they will come to the panel prepared. This also gives them a chance to suggest questions you might not have thought about. I have often had panelists say to me ‘We just completed a project on this subject.‘ Now, you have a brand new question: ‘So, your bank just completed a project…tell us about it.

Know your panel and keep an eye on the clock

Depending on how well you know your panel – either have a quick call or arranged to meet at the event, before hand. So everyone gets to know each other. And it gives you insight into the personalities of the panelists. This guy is a know-it-all who drones on and on (be prepared to interrupt) or this person is a bit quieter and will need promoting to speak etc…

Start on time and end on time. An event that starts going more than 15 min over time is an event that has a lot more problems than just time management.

Organise your questions in blocks. For 45 minutes – that is three blocks of 15 minutes. This will allow you to monitor if one subject is talking up too much time. ‘We could talk about this all day folks, but we have to move on and discuss this…’

Open with a general overview question that allows everyone to have a say. There are people who naturally dominate any conversation. It is your job to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak – no matter what their style is. Do not allow people to introduce themselves, other than saying their name and job title. I tend to allow people to introduce themselves, because I am criminally bad at people’s names (I once called a guy ‘Henry’ six times before he corrected me and said ‘My name is Harry’.) However, I have seen, and made the mistake myself, giving everyone free reign to introduce themselves. 20 minutes later, while keeping en eye on people checking their phones in the audience, we managed to start the panel.

Keep a few questions in your pocket

Save two or three questions in your pocket if you plan on throwing questions out to the audience. Sometimes you get a lively audience and other times…tumbleweeds. So don’t throw it out to the audience when you have run out of questions, because you may need a couple in reserve. Also, pay attention to what your panel says – on stage. Which 50% of the time, tends to differ from the myriad of emails, prep calls and meeting for coffee, you have had with the panel prior to getting on stage. By paying attention, you can come up with questions on the fly – even if it is something lazy like ‘That sounds interesting, can you tell us more about that?‘ (Which I have used – I feel so ashamed)

When you see the time running out – around the 10 minute mark. Say this out loud, so the audience and your panel knows that your time together is coming to an end – ‘Well, we are almost out of time, folks – let me ask each of you a final question…’

Then you end and thank everyone. Next you get to check your tweets and RT the praise ‘The best moderated panel I have ever seen!‘ 🙂

Now go out and moderate like a Boss!

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