The Commandments of Moderating, Part 6: Prepare, But Don’t Overprepare, Panelists and Part 7: Directing Traffic

With the new year I bring you the long-overdue second half of the Ten Commandments of Moderating.  Next up: How to prepare your panelists; and how to direct traffic.

6.  Prepare, But Don’t Overprepare, PanelistsPanelists should know:

  • The format — You don’t want a panelist coming to a free-flowing give-and-take discussion with the expectation that he will have a chance to give a speech.  You don’t want to confront panelists with case studies to analyze if they expected only to offer general opinions.  You don’t want a panelist expecting a one-on-one interview and discovering she’s part of an eight-member panel.  You get the idea.
  • The content — That is, what the discussion will be about, who the audience is, and what audience members hope to get out of the discussion.  If there is a key idea or piece of information that you will be looking to a particular panelist to provide, let that person know it.
But panelists don’t need to know:

  • The exact questions you will be asking — Knowing exactly what will be asked kills spontaneity on both sides.  Not only will panelists come ready with canned responses, but they’ll expect the moderator to stick to the script,  hampering the moderator’s ability to respond to the moment.
  • Exactly how the other panelists will interact with them — Some producers or moderators of panels believe in getting all the panelists together on one conference call before the event.  That’s fine if the only purpose is to review format and logistics.  But if panelists have a substantive discussion about the topic of the panel before the event — particular if it lasts longer than a couple minutes — they’ll be having moments of discovery, agreement and/or disagreement that your audience is missing.  Of course this may be inevitable if the panelists know one another or have been on a panel together in the past.  But you shouldn’t do anything to increase the likelihood that the energy between panelists has already run its course.

7.  Directing Traffic — We have already suggested that in most cases, moving down the panel asking everyone the same question is a bad idea. (An exception: beginning or ending with a question that requires a one-word answer.) One should be hopping around the panel, asking one or more panelists to respond to something another said, encouraging interaction. Ideally this should encourage a smooth flow of dialogue among the group. But in the non-ideal real world, sometimes someone will talk too much, and someone else might not be involved enough.

How to tactfully cut off the person who won’t stop talking?  Try this:

  • If they are saying something relevant but going on too long, jump in, repeat or paraphrase something the person just said and then immediately ask another panelist to respond. For example: “Chris says we should ‘just say no.’ Pat, do you agree? Will that work?”
  • If they are talking about something that you need to move away from, cut them off by focusing on the change of topic: “[Chris’ issue] is worthy of a whole session in itself, but I’m going to switch gears here. Pat, looking at the latest news on [x], tell me . . . “
  • If they jump in too frequently, start questions by identifying who are are asking first, and if the talker interrupts, say, “hang on, Chris – Pat, what were you about to say about [x]?”

If someone is not saying enough – keep a list of the panelists in your notes and make a check next to each name when they speak. If someone doesn’t have enough checks, go to them, either to start a new topic or to respond to someone else. And keep your eyes on the rest of the panel when someone is speaking. Does someone look like they would like to get in on the conversation? Are they nodding or shaking their head in agreement/disagreement? Let them in.

 

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