Have you ever attended a terribly moderated panel? Unfortunately I have, several times. Panels can be a great way to get diverse points of view on important topics from thought leaders. Yet, while the medium is widely accepted and often used, in my humble opinion it is not done well the majority of the time.
Last month, I was asked to moderate a panel on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Convention in Chicago. After the initial excitement wore off, I began to reflect on the bad panels I’ve participated in over the years. Determined to make a difference, I interviewed several colleagues and researched literature on how to moderate panels; however, the marketer in me urged me to keep my audience in mind as I was preparing.
After I distilled my research and obtained a good understanding of my audience, I put together these seven tips:
1. You’re a moderator, not a panelist. Like the saying, “those who cannot do, teach” remember that if you were selected to moderate you’re not selected because of your opinions on the topic. As tempting as it might be, let the panelists be the content experts.
2. Define the scope. Agree with your panelists on a tight scope of the topic ahead of time, including what is out of scope. In our case, we agreed on limiting our discussion on the pragmatic activities small business owners should be taking to prepare for the ACA. Given the audience and the topic, this could have easily turned into a long and heated debate, with everyone walking away at best entertained, but with little value post-conference.
3. Provide different points of view. If you can select your panel, pepper your choices with panelists from different points of view, limiting overlap. In addition, agree on points of view to take on while answering questions. For example, in our panel someone represented the executive, another offered the insurance perspective and yet another was a patient educator. When a question arises ask another panelist for their point of view on the same issue.
4. Structure the format. Plan, plan, plan. Then enforce, enforce, enforce. Break down the timelines for each section (introduction, Q&A, conclusion) down to the minute. Remind your panelists and the audience of your structure.
5. It’s not about the panel members. Every panel member is a thought leader in their own right. Do not waste valuable air time introducing them at length—let the content of their comments show how educated, experienced or famous they are. Social media should give full visibility to anyone if they truly want to find out more about the panelists and you.
6. It’s all about the audience. People pay hundreds of dollars to attend a session, let alone the value of time. Open the panel to comments and Q&A from the audience. Out of the 45 minutes we were allotted, we spent 35 minutes in Q&A—hearing directly from our audience what burning questions they had.
7. Close strong! Allow the panelist to give a final 30-second point of view on the issue, based on the questions from the audience. Wrap up by providing a brief summary of the scope, the themes of the answers and by making the panel and yourself available for a continued dialogue outside of the time allotted.
Our panel was warmly received by the audience—a large feat given the topic at hand. Surprisingly, the panel members were very complimentary on our approach and discipline. Personally, I felt satisfied that like every good marketer, I was meeting my customer’s needs.