How to moderate a panel

This week I got to moderate a panel with the person who invented the spreadsheet as well as the guys who designed that kick-ass Yahoo Weather app and Yahoo Mail as well as a local Boston developer. What did I learn? Well…

PHOTO: @TedBahr

PHOTO: @TedBahr

First off, I’d never moderated a panel before. I’ve been to some horrible panels, and been to some great ones, so I did a Google search for tips on moderating a panel, and who’s name should come up but Scott Kirsner. Scott has moderated some of the BEST panels I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend, so if you want tips on moderating a panel, I suggest you read some of his posts on the topic.

My goal was to have my first ever panel moderation be one of the top rated talks in at Android Developers Conference. I had the talent, all I needed was focus.

So which tips did I take from Scott?

  • Originally the plan was to run it like comic-con with a big o’l table between the audience an the speakers and old school “push to talk” mics. Scott doesn’t like anything between the audience and the panelists, and I have to say that makes a lot of sense to me, so we nixed the tables and went with comfy chairs and personal mics for everyone.
  • At Scott’s suggestion we also scooted the chairs as close to the front of the stage as we could, and I’m so glad we did. Originally they were all the way at the back and it would have been like a river between us and the audience.
  • I got to sit in the middle (another of Scott’s tips for moderating a panel discussion).

Here are a few tips that weren’t on Scott’s list which worked well for me:

  1. Hydration – The panel didn’t start until 7:30PM, and the guys from Yahoo had been up at 1AM the night before practicing for their 8:30AM keynote and our panel was slated to be 2 hours long! The last thing I wanted was for someone to lose their voice or start coughing, so I asked the organizers to make sure everyone was well hydrated. Alex Handy went above and beyond and tucked six bottles of water between each seat. I know we went through at least 8 bottles between us, so this was definitely a good call.
  2. Reframing – All of the audience questions were great, but a couple were open ended, or didn’t tie directly into other things we were talking about, so I rephrased them or wrapped them in some sort of context. It wasn’t something I consciously did. This was the educator in me. Always needing to clarify and provide context to keep the audience tracking in the same direction, but the panelists thanked me for it afterwards.
  3. Storytelling – This probably isn’t appropriate all the time, but because this panel was two hours long, I made a point as we got near the end to tie everything together, and also used that opportunity to remind people of the key points of what we talked about, and then gave the panelists one last framing question.

I’m really happy with the results.

Of course I had a GREAT panel to work with. I didn’t pick any of the panelists, so I got lucky on that account. These guys were just great. Albert and Alex had some great stories and Yahoo really has their processes down pat. Dan played the role of spoiler (in a good way) and played devils advocate to many of the points, which really rounded out everything we talked about, and Stephen had some “in the trench” stories.

It also helped that the Android Developer Conference organizers were *so* open my requests. I meant I could put 100% of my mind on my panelists and not have to worry about details.

Despite the fact that the conference had started at 8:30AM and the fact that this panel went until 9:30PM we got a really good turnout who stuck around until the bitter end.


One Comment

Kristin J. Arnold (@KristinJArnold)

Congrats on your first expedition out as a moderator, Jason. Sounds like you did a great job. Yes, you were fortunate to have had some great panelists, but the glue that holds the whole thing together is the moderator. And kudos to you for doing your homework – on the “process” as well as the topic. Wish more moderators did what you did!


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