How Panel Moderators Can Keep Conversation Moving During a Panel Discussion
July 5, 2017
Make a Panel Discussion Memorable with a Mental Avatar
July 25, 2017

What kind of panel moderator are you?

That was the question as a few of us were sipping martinis on our back deck in Prince Edward Island, gazing out at the ocean.  We came up with 8 different styles – and agreed that we have seen all eight styles – although not all at the same time!

Perhaps you identify with one or two styles…or perhaps you use a blend.  Just beware of when a specific style comes on too strong and doesn’t serve the audience well.

And just for fun, we tried to pair up the style with a famous American talk show host.  Would love to know your ideas as well!

  1. The Provocateur. This panel moderator asks interesting and stimulating questions.  He probes beyond the superficial answer to get to a core idea and relevant takeaway for the audience.  He serves as the devil’s advocate, asking tough questions that challenge extreme viewpoints.

Role Models:  Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly

Beware the Inquisitor: With a knife edge that digs too deeply, asks challenging questions too sharply or asks leading questions to move forward a specific agenda.

  1. The Host. Charming and gracious, this panel moderator throws the perfect dinner party where the “guests” have a wonderful experience, create scintillating conversation, and learn from each other as well.  She keeps things moving, involves everyone, and facilitates a balanced conversation without taking sides or expressing her opinion.

I love the way Mette Harrison described the “Ellen Kushner Dinner Party”:

[Fantasy Author] Ellen Kushner explained that she hopes that the audience in her panels feels like they have been sitting in on a dinner party. She wants everyone to feel equally empowered to speak, but she feels no obligation to sit back and let the other panelists do the talking. She strategizes by trying to think of fun jumping off points and sort of throws them into the mix and lets what is going to happen happen. She doesn’t try to keep people from having a heated discussion. In fact, in some ways, it seemed that what she wanted was two opposing sides duking it out up on the podium.

Role Models:, Kelly Ripa, Mike Douglas (I’m showing my age here, but I grew up with The Mike Douglas Show after school!)

Beware the Empty Host who just shows up to the party without doing the requisite planning.  The panel then devolves into an audience-driven free-for-all where the panelists respond to crazy questions.

  1. The Star. A well-known celebrity, author, or talent can draw people to your panel discussion.  She delights the audience with a few short opening remarks, and then turns the spotlight over to the panelists and the audience.

Role Models: Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz

Beware the Star who keeps the spotlight on themselves by talking too much, turning the conversation toward her own agenda and/or hawking their products or services.

  1. The Referee. There are two or more distinct opinions about the topic that needs to be debated in a civilized manner.  The Referee expertly mediates the conversation without showing his own biases.

Role Models: Greta Van Susteren, Bill Maher

Beware of being the Sideliner who realizes he is in way over his head.  He doesn’t know how to facilitate the conflict, so he backs out of the conversation and lets the two sides duke it out.

  1. The Panelist. When the panel moderator knows as much (if not more) than the panelists, then the moderator may also find herself contributing on a substantive level to the conversation – particularly when the panel isn’t responding.  The savvy panel moderator waits until the panelists have spoken and then offers any additional insights and information.

Role Models: Anderson Cooper, Barbara Walters

Beware the Dominator who takes over the panel discussion, calls on himself more often than any other panelist, or has the answer for everything.  So who’s minding the process?

  1. The Humorist. All panels can benefit from a light touch of humor – even somber topics need a little levity.

Role Models: Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel

Beware being The Clown that has to make everything “funny.”

  1. The Ignorant. Not only does he know nothing about the topic of the panel or the people on it, but chances are he didn’t even know he was moderating it until a few minutes ago!  Granted, this is a tough situation to be in, but you can always say, “No,” or you rely on a well-honed set of moderating skills.

Role Models: Hmmm….I think I’ll stay ignorant on this one!

Beware Staying Ignorant.  You know how to do this.  Draw up a quick agenda and touch base with your panelists in the few moments before the start of the session.  Consider starting with a quick definition of the topic and get the audience to tell you what they want to know about it.  Then have the panelists introduce themselves along with an answer or insight into what the audience wants to know.

  1. The Idiot. This panel moderator has no business moderating a panel.  He’s not paying attention, not engaged in the conversation, calls panelists by the wrong name, misstates important facts, and obviously didn’t prepare at all.

Role Models:  Ha. Ha.  I’m not that stupid to name someone an idiot!

Beware Staying Stupid. If you are going to moderate a panel discussion, by all means, do the work and do it well!  Check out my book, Powerful Panels: A Step-By-Step Guide to Moderating Lively & Informative Panel Discussions at Meetings, Conferences & Conventions.

Related Articles:

Audience and Panelist Engagement AFTER the Panel Discussion

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

3 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

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.


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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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