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4 Steps To Moderating a Great Panel

As you foray deeper into the working world, you'll begin to gain real expertise on a few subjects in your industry. And getting yourself out there and speak about what you know is a great way to establish yourself as an expert. But, public speaking can feel scary if you've never done it before.

One way to dip your toes in the conference speaking waters is to moderate a panel. You’ll still gain visibility among your peers, but you’ll get to share the stage (and let other people do most of the talking).

To get started, here’s a primer on the basics of moderating a panel—from picking a great topic and putting together the right panelists to leading a session that everyone will love.

1. Pick a Topic You Know, and Others Want to Hear About

The first step in moderating a panel may very well be the most important: picking the topic. You'll want to make sure it isn't too broad (How to Win at All Marketing Ever) or too narrow (How to Win at Marketing Artisanal Chocolates to 20-Something Women).

Since you’ll be the one moderating, you don't need to be a total expert on the subject, but you should know enough about it to guide the conversation and ask thoughtful questions. Try narrowing the focus to a niche that you're familiar with, either around a product or service (How to Win at Marketing Food) or a demographic (How to Win at Marketing to Foodies).

If you're not sure where to start, spend some time thinking about the event at which your panel will be held. What sort of people will be in the audience? How focused is the entire event? (E.g., if by some miracle, there was a conference on just marketing desserts, your How to Win at Marketing Artisanal Chocolates idea might actually not be that crazy.)

2. Round Up Unusual Suspects

Once you have your topic down, you'll want to line up 2-5 panelists with different experiences (and sometimes even clashing perspectives). Start by looking at your network and asking people you respect and admire in your field. Or, put together a brief outline of your topic, and do a call for submissions on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Beware, however, of rounding up a panel of folks who are too similar. (For inspiration, check out the SxSW conference diversity guidelines’ acronym V-O-W-E-L.) A good rule of thumb is that if everyone knows each other already, you’d probably benefit from bringing in someone new.

Remember, too, that as a moderator, your main responsibility will be to keep the conversation on topic and moving forward. You won't be there to introduce your opinion, so selecting a diverse set of panelists is a great way to make sure enough opinions are represented.

3. Decide on the Format

How you structure your panel will make a big difference in the presentation you give to your audience. You should first decide whether you want the panelists to be more interactive or to share their expertise with a captive (but mostly silent) audience. If the purpose is to teach the group a skill or if it’s a small audience that’s likely to engage, an interactive format may be the best choice. On the other hand, if you’ve lined up panelists with deep expertise and differing perspectives on a controversial topic, you may want to choose to keep the focus on the panelists’ interactions with one another.

For a one-hour panel, here are a few ways you can split up the time:

  • Q&A Style: A 5-minute introduction of the topic and panelists, 25 minutes of curated questions from the moderator (you!), and 30 minutes of audience questions (guided by you as well).
  • Guided Conversation Style: Start with a 2-minute introduction of the topic, and give each panelist 5-7 minutes to introduce themselves and their perspective on the topic.Then, plan 20 minutes of guided conversation during which each panelist has a chance to respond to the others, followed by 5 minutes of Q&A with the audience at the end.
  • Speech Style: Give a 5-minute introduction of the topic and panelists, then allow each panelist 10-15 minutes for uninterrupted sharing of his or her perspective. End with a 5-minute Q&A.
  • 4. Prepare, But Don't Overprepare

    The best panels I've attended clearly had preparation behind them. You want to make sure that the most interesting conversations happen in that hour, versus leaving it up to chance.

    When I've moderated panels, I've set up a 30-45 minute mandatory prep session with the panelists. I like to use Google Hangout, so that everyone can see each other and feel more connected before they’re sharing the stage. During this time, I have everyone introduce themselves to the others, discuss their background, perspective, and give one snappy anecdote or tip they'd love to have a chance to share.

    During the prep session, you shouldn't talk too much—just guide the conversation, ask clarifying questions, and take lots of notes. You don't want to write anything down verbatim, but you want to know the key ideas to pull out of your panelists when the time comes.

    When you’re going into the actual panel, you'll be able to give a warm and accurate introduction for each panelist, and also have a list of key themes next to you. As the conversation flows naturally, you can then check off themes that have been discussed and bring up important ones that haven’t been mentioned yet. And if someone shared a great point or strong anecdote during your prep session, you can also make a point of asking her a question that will let her bring it up during the panel.

    Finally, relax and have fun! If you’ve picked the right topic, the right people, and the right format and you’ve done your prep work ahead of time, you’ll be all set up for a successful panel.

    Read more from The Daily Muse's Career Advancement Month.

    Photo courtesy of Dell.