12 Tips to Moderate a Panel Discussion that Flows Naturally

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One of the panel moderator’s most important responsibilities is to keep the conversation flowing naturally.  Like a good talk show host, here are 12 tips to keep the conversation lively and informative:

  1. Get the Conversation Started. Once the introductions to the topic and the panelists are done, the actual discussion starts.  This is the toughest part of the moderator’s job, and this is where the moderator can make the greatest difference.
  2. Ground Rules.  Remind the panelists and inform the audience of the ground rules for this portion of the program.
  3. Hot Potato or Ping Pong.  The first question usually takes the form of a “hot potato” question (where the moderator asks the same question to each panelist – ugh, so boring!) or conversational ping-pong (where the moderator asks a different question to each panelist, preferably ones that build on each other). Typically, the conversation then will evolve into more of a discussion.
  4. Use Your Questions.  Get the panelists to talk by using your well-prepared conversation starter questions.  Make it sound like you just thought of them and make sure each question is directed to a specific panelist.
  5. Break Eye Contact.  Look at the panelist when asking a question, then turn to the audience to gauge their reaction and interest.  If you look at the panelists after you’ve asked a question, the panelists will instinctively look back at you when responding.  You really want the panelists to talk among themselves and with the audience!
  6. Watch for Cues.  In your pre-meeting, you set up a way for panelists to catch your eye to let you and the other panelists know that they would like to respond.  Your speakers should be able to tell you and each other with a glance that they want to address a question or follow up on someone else’s comments.
  7. Two is Enough.  Don’t go down the hot potato line for every question.  By the time the fifth panelist is answering the same question four other panelists have answered, the contribution is probably pretty thin. When you ask a question, two answers are plenty, unless a third person is dying to jump in.
  8. Be Flexible.  Be open and flexible about following the natural conversation path as long as it is interesting and the audience is engaged.  Be willing to let go of your planned questions should a particularly interesting line of discussion emerge.
  9. Take Notes.  Especially when the panelists deliver prepared remarks,  listen very carefully, and take notes.  Wherever possible, capture important statements verbatim so you can refer to them during the discussion.
  10. Invite Comments.  Encourage other panelists to comment on particular parts of other panelists’ statements.  Stay away from a general, “What do you think about that?”  It opens the door to off-topic answers.
  11. Use Humor.  Use humor gently and appropriately in service of the discussion.  Use your natural wit to lighten the moment. Beware of going too far with canned jokes, gimmicks, and sarcasm.  It’s a panel, not a game show.
  12. Banter.  Encourage the panelists to have fun, chatter, and joke among themselves.

Follow these twelve tips and you’ll have a great conversation during your panel discussion!

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For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series or our other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Photo source: Depositphotos.com

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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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