A Good Panel Moderator
I must admit that I didn’t gain very much intellectually from the recent Nexus 2007, because the level of discussions was generally mediocre.
Sure, there were some pretty smart panelists, but that alone isn’t always enough for a good panel discussion. Good moderation is thus crucial, which was mostly missing from the sessions I attended.
In a perfect world, there really isn’t a need for a panel moderator, just like there isn’t a need for a soccer referee. But because some panelists dominate discussions, others don’t contribute much, and discussions tend to go off-topic, the panel moderator plays an important role.
But while the role is an important one, the moderator should always remember that they are not the stars of the show, even though some of them may be stars in their own right. The moderator’s role is to bring out a good discussion from the panel, and stay out of the way when it’s happening. Just like you don’t want the soccer referee to be kicking the ball. Or worse, scoring a goal.
Sure, there are times when it makes sense for the moderator to give an introductory presentation to help the audience have a basic understanding of the topic at hand, but it would do well for the moderator to remember that it should be introductory, and as brief and succinct as possible. It’s tempting to add in fascinating bits of information to interest the audience, but this should be left for the panelists to do.
Once the introductions to the topic and the panelists are out of the way, the discussion proper commences. This is probably the toughest part of the moderator’s job, and this is where a good moderator makes the greatest difference.
Nothing is more unfair and disrespectful to the audience than for a discussion to go completely off topic. The audience has chosen to invest their time to listen to a discussion on that topic, so the moderator should keep checking and deciding if there’s a need to pull the conversation back on topic. But unlike in a soccer game where the referee blows the whistle every time the ball crosses the white line, the moderator has a large gray area to work with. And even if a panelist goes off topic, the moderator has to exercise judgment – is the off-topic anecdote interesting enough and short enough to be allowed through? or is the audience getting impatient, so that the moderator should step in?
Then there are panelists who talk too much, and those who contribute too little. The reason we have panels is so that we can hear different views on a topic. If a panelist dominates the discussion, or a panelist doesn’t contribute enough, the audience is shortchanged, and things aren’t moderate anymore.
If the moderator can keep the discussion on topic with all panelists contributing more or less equally, that would make the moderator a pretty good moderator, but not a great one. A great moderator introduces tension into the discussion – tension in the form of controversies, contradictions, and conflicts.
Controversies. Almost all topics have their controversies, and a good and easy way to create tension is for the moderator to ask the panelists on their view of the latest controversies. “Would if be a good idea for Singapore’s ruling political party to blog?” I might ask a panel discussing blogging in Singapore. The best controversies will bring out different views from different panelists.
Contradictions. It takes a sharp moderator to catch the contradictions made by the panelists. “You mentioned X just now, but now you seem to be saying Y. Could you clarify this?” or, “you once mentioned X in your blog, but now you’re saying Y…” The panelist who self-contradicts is not giving the audience enough respect, especially if that panelist hopes to get away it. The audience will appreciate the moderator who catches this, and soon the moderator will be seen as the star of the show. Wait, did I just contradict myself about being the star?
Conflicts. It’s hard to catch panelists contradicting themselves, but it’s much easier to catch them contradicting one another, giving the moderator a chance to create conflict. “Panelist A mentioned X just now. What is your view on X?” Good panelists (and dominant ones as well) will create conflict on their own, but quieter panelists would need a little more prodding. Again, conflict helps to add more views to the discussion, besides creating tension. Of course, the amount of conflict should be controlled, even though an escalation to physical conflict may make the panel a lot more memorable for the audience. So far, I’ve never encountered very serious (or exciting) conflicts during panel discussions. Unless you count the part when the audience gets to ask questions.
(Have you ever noticed that the Q&A segment is sometimes the most interesting and exciting part of the panel discussion? That’s almost always because some audience member raised a controversy, or pointed out some contradiction or otherwise had some conflict with the panel. Go figure.)
Then you have the audience member who rambles on and on before reaching the question, assuming that they even have a question. Nothing is more annoying than the audience member who needs to make a statement, or monopolizes the microphone. A good moderator must know how to firmly but politely remind the audience to get to the question quickly, and dismiss anything irrelevant. That audience member with issues may hate the moderator, but everyone else would be in love.
And when the time is up, the moderator must know how to give the session closure – usually by asking for some final words from the panel. Again, this should be kept short.
Nexus 2007. My favorite moment was during the Q&A of the final panel discussion, the Global Startup Panel. A young man from China went to the microphone to ask Cory Ondrejka a question. When Cory finally finished his reply, he asked the young man if he had anything else to ask, since he was still standing at the mic.
“I’m standing here out of respect for you,” he replied. Everyone cracked up.
Guy Kawasaki has a nice post on How To Be a Great Moderator, which gives a bunch of very practical tips.