10 Common Mistakes Panel Moderators Make…And How to Avoid Them

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In a recent survey of 539 executives, thought leaders and meeting planners, 72% of the respondents had issues with the moderator.  That’s 3/4 of the people think the moderator can do a better job!  The moderator is the glue that holds the panel together, making sure there is an intriguing topic, interesting panelists and lots of opportunities to audience learning and engagement.  If the moderator isn’t doing the job, then chances are the panel won’t work either.

So what drives them absolutely nuts?  Here’s the top ten list – and what you can do about it.

1.  Didn’t have the skills or depth to facilitate a discussion.  I found that this one had by far the most comments, and they were pretty vague in that it was “the moderator was not up to the task,” or “the moderator was not facilitating the discussion,” or “the moderator was not taking charge.” “The moderator was not strong enough to stop people and move on,” and this is basically your facilitation skills, that you just weren’t up to par. How do you get skills? Well, that’s a pretty good one… Go get training. Get some experience.  Moderate as many panels as you can and critique yourself after each and every event.

2.  Failed to intervene timely or appropriately. Perhaps the moderator let that panelist talk too long or shamelessly promote themselves, or let that panelist get out of control. Hopefully, you’ve set some prevention strategies and some ground rules so that when you intervene, you’re intervening firmly and respectfully.  The panelists know you’re going to do that because you pre-briefed them that you are going to make sure that the audience’s needs get met and that you will intervene firmly if we need to move on.  The audience will thank you profusely.

3.  Didn’t prepare adequately.  It’s blatantly obvious when a moderator hasn’t done their homework. They just walked in and said, “I’ll go moderate this panel.” There’s several things that you can do in preparation:

    • Research the topic,  the panel, the audience. Do a couple of Google searches. You don’t have to read every book they ever wrote, but research it.
    • Create that format, the agenda, and maybe some ground rules for the panelists, ground rules for the audience members when they do Q&A.
    • Write a tight welcome and introduction.
    • Curate some great questions to get the conversation rolling.
    • Confirm logistics.  Microphones? Do you need to have microphones? Room set up?  Are you going to stand, sit or be out in the audience?
    • Confirm the details with the panelists at either a conference call or as a meet-up –  and don’t have the panel conversation before the panel! Make sure that you’re talking about the details but don’t have the actual content of the conversation. 

4.  Asked poor questions.  This is a close sister to the “I’m just going to show up and be brilliant. How hard can it be to ask a few questions?” It is hard. Take a look at the panelists’ expertise and various points of view.  Curate specific questions that will their insights out in a meaningful way that the audience can then do something with the insights.  I like to aim for at least two questions that are particularly crafted for each panelist. One should be very general and strategic and the other should be more tactical in the application and the “how to.” You also have to listen intently to the discussion to nudge the conversation forward.

5.  Shamelessly self-promoted themselves, their company or a product/service.  Actually, panelists are probably more guilty of inappropriately promoting themselves, but every once in a while you get a moderator who does this too.  Just do a good job moderating the panel discussion and you’ll be promote yourself just fine. Not to worry.

6.  Talked too much.  Pope Francis can pontificate and talk as much as he wants. Moderators who pontificate their position are committing a cardinal sin because the audience came to hear from the panelists – not the moderator. Keep the welcome and introductions crisp and to the point.  Start the conversation and then get out of the way if it’s lively and full of great content.  You’ll  look great if you are the champion for the audience and you facilitate a lively and robust panel discussion that meets the needs of the audience while starting and ending on time.  You’ll look like a hero if you do that. You don’t need to talk and keep talking. It’s not about you.

7.  Didn’t engage the audience.  Today’s audiences are demanding more interaction and connection with the presenters.  Engage the audience from the get-go through social media before the event.  Use index cards or cool technology like sli.do to take a poll or solicit questions from the audience.  Set up the room for audience-centered seating and create a more conversational setting by getting rid of that darned white draped table!

8.  Designed a poor/boring format.  The basic design of most panels starts with a short introduction piece; optional panelist introductory remarks, moderator curated questions, audience Q&A, summary/closing comments, and then a thank you at the end.  A great moderator doesn’t just show up and wing it; they actually think it through  and design  a lively and interesting format so that the audience not only gets valuable content but is mildly entertained along the way.  (Hint: take a que from any of the reality TV shows or talk shows for some great ideas to spice up the design.)  

9.  Took too long to introduce the topic and the panelists.  Either the moderator takes forever to introduce themselves, the topic and the panelists or the panelists go on and on.  Keep in mind that people have the panel bios  usually in the conference brochure, so you shouldn’t need to spend tons and tons of time on introductions. The key is to know how you’re going to do the introductions and actually spend some time scripting them out so it’s crisp, clear and to the point so you can get to the conversation quickly.

10.  Didn’t meet the objectives.  The panelists talked about something other than what was stated in the promotional materials.  It’s a bait and switch tactic that happens because the moderator lost focus on the stated objectives.  Pull out the program materials and be crystal clear about the session objectives.

How do you know that the moderator has done a good job?  The panel discussion delivered on the promise in the marketing materials.  Each panelist had an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. The audience members stuck around to talk about the topic and takeaways immediately and well after the session.

Make sure to share these tips with your fellow panel moderators and event professionals, so that they can avoid these common mistakes.


Related Articles:

How to Prepare Your Panelists to be Brilliant

How Much Research Should the Moderator Do?

The Anatomy of a Powerful Panel

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

Kristin Arnold



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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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