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Bad Moderators Can Kill Your Event. Here’s How To Avoid Them.

image: Joe Mabel (via Wikipedia)

image: Joe Mabel (Wikipedia)

Sometimes after I finish recruiting great speakers for a conference I feel like a parent handing over my child to the teacher on the first day of school. That’s because I must turn the speakers over to the moderator, who will guide their session on stage.

A good moderator will lead a good discussion. A great moderator will draw out amazing stories and insights from his or her panelists.

But a poor moderator can turn what should be a stimulating discussion into a snoozer that puts the audience to sleep or, worse, has them heading for the exits.

To avoid that, it’s important to work with moderators ahead of time. Give them their panelists’ bios and photos, but also be sure to share any insights you gleaned while recruiting and talking with the speakers.

A good moderator should set up a preparatory call with their panelists to let them know the kinds of topics and questions likely to come up. Talking to each other ahead of time on the phone or, if necessary, by email begins the conversation that will continue on stage.

It’s also a good idea for panelists and moderator to meet again on site, perhaps for breakfast or coffee.  When I have moderated sessions, those informal get-togethers often open my eyes to new ideas, questions and topics — and we’ll continue on stage the conversation we had at breakfast.

Other tips for moderators:

  • Don’t just ask the same question of all panelists
  • Don’t go down the line of panelists asking each a question in order
  • Make sure to draw in panelists who may not be speaking enough
  • Encourage the panelists to ask each other questions
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to let the audience ask questions — when I moderate, I often pull the audience in almost immediately.

The best moderators “go with the flow.” They may have a list of 10 questions they want to cover, but if a panelist says something interesting or provocative in answer to a question, the moderator will follow up that line of conversation instead of just sticking to their prepared questions.

I recently attended a speaker and moderator training session where the instructor suggested stopping the panel every 10 minutes to have the moderator ask the audience to discuss with the person on their left or their right what was being said on stage. He said that will help the audience retain far more information than if all they did was listen.

What do you think? Do you have other tips for moderators? What are some of the best strategies you’ve seen moderators use?