Panels attract attention primarily because of their speaker lineup—the audience attends because they want to hear the individuals in question weigh in on a certain topic. So, it’s easy to forget the importance of the glue that holds it all together: the moderator.
photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia
Moderator may be a more understated role than panelist, but it’s quite literally the make-or-break factor on whether a panel is successful in achieving its goals and engaging the audience.
When you’re moderating a panel, your biggest responsibility is to stimulate great questions—these are the gateways to insightful answers. Keeping things flowing with quality questions gets panelists engaged, which in turn gives audience members a reason to care and retain what they’re learning.
Here are five strategies for panel moderators looking to inspire thought-provoking questions.
Break the Ice
Many audience members typically know something about the panelists. It’s why they’ve shown up to the session, after all. But it’s never safe to assume people already know everything they need to about panelists. Breaking the ice is important, even if panelists’ credentials seem to speak for themselves.
Icebreakers can be personal or work-related; humorous or straightforward. What matters most is that you kick things off in a way that makes panelists feel welcomed and ready to participate. The added bonus is that your audience will appreciate the chance to get to know panelists even better based on their answers.
Mix Up the Response Order
It’s easy to fall into the pattern of asking questions in a linear fashion. But the routineness of going down the line each time you ask a question tends to make for a dull panel. Plus, you’ll end up making it difficult for panelists at the end of the line to contribute anything fresh to the conversation.
A better strategy is switching gears after two answers, either with a related question or something novel. At least try popcorning around, specifically mixing up the order in which you ask questions to various panelists. This simple change of pace will go a long way in getting the right amount of mileage out of each question.
Incorporate Audience Contributions
Luckily, moderators don’t have to handle panel moderation all alone. Audience response technology like Poll Everywhere allows audience members to submit questions and comments in real time using mobile devices—and upvote others’ submissions that they’d like to see answered, helping quality questions rise to the top. Moderators can then choose from these audience contributions, using them to energize the panel discussion for all.
Stick to Common Ground
Consider whatever commonality brings all the panelists together. Is it subject matter expertise? Is it a collection of people with the same job role, or who work in the same industry?
- What is the biggest challenge in [common field/topic/industry] right now?
- How did you get into [common industry/field] and what made you stay?
- What is a trend we can expect in the coming months for [field/topic/industry]?
- What is the best resource for people looking to dive deeper into [common field/topic/industry]?
Use Panelist Reponses to Generate Questions
The best moderators are able to take panelist responses and extract even more value, using them to prompt new lines of thought. Ask specific panelists to respond to one another or compare their opinions about a certain subject. This will fan the flames of lively conversation without encouraging panelists to interrupt one another or compete for the spotlight.
Your success as a moderator depends in part on your ability to stimulate great questions during a panel discussion. Use these tips to keep the conversational ball rolling while boosting engagement for everyone involved.