Extraordinary Panel Case Study: Interview with a Professional Panel Moderator

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I had the good fortune to interview Kate Delaney about her role as moderator of NSA’s Influence ’16 amazing panel discussion “Creating and Curating Relevant and Valuable Content” with panelists Patti Dennis, Amy Cosper, Rachel Weintraub, and Heath Row. 


Moderator Kate Delaney with Panelists Patti Dennis, Amy Cosper, Rachel Weintraub, and Heath Row

As Bill Cates, CSP, CPAE said to me in an email: “While I don’t usually like panels on the main stage with larger groups, this one was great.  The right people, saying relevant things, lead in the right way.  Extraordinary!”

So what made this panel so extraordinary?  Here are the main highlights from the interview:

  • Aligned Panelists.  When I asked, “Why do you think this went so darn well?” Kate responded, “I think the panelists were perfectly aligned because you had somebody from the print world, you had people who were recruiting, bringing in the digital and broadcast world, and you had a brilliant panelist in Heath Row from Google where they are curating and gathering all those statistics and trying to disseminate them and figure out what kind of content people are really craving and that combination of all of those panelists. I think pulling them together was really the brilliance of it and my role was to just be the extractor (not put myself in it) but just to extract those valuable pieces of information.”
  • Morphed Topic.  The topic started out one way (being about women business leaders), and because of the synergy of the panelists, ended up going in a different direction – about content. I was impressed with the ability to shift gears and make it more about what the audience needed than about the topic.
  • Research.  Kate looked at their backgrounds through LinkedIn and Google.  She reached out to others in her network who “knew or was connected to them in some way and could tell me really frankly amazing stories.”
  • Lots of Feedback.  To get a starting list of questions, she reached out to the conference organizers, five or so of her journalist friends who were intimately familiar with the topic and five of her speaker buddies – who essentially represented the audience.  Kate explains, “I put them together in my crew and I sent them out an email and said, ‘Okay, you’re in my circle. Will you all look at these questions…Is there something you would be interested in that I’m not asking or thinking about? Do you think these questions are relevant and good? What else can I squeeze in here or should I dump some of these questions?'”
  • A Handful of Questions.  She then culled that list down to a handful or so. “I got rid of the questions I thought were just too narrow. I needed broader questions,” keeping those that had the biggest and broadest impact and value from the audience’s perspective.
  • Clock Management.  Kate said, “Moderating panels is clock management just like a football team. I think of it as, you know, being a professional coach. How many minutes is everybody going to get and what if somebody doesn’t have a lot to say? That’s okay because some of those minutes would go to the other person. If you have too many people on the panel, you won’t get to hear what may be what you want to hear from somebody because they don’t get enough time.”
  • Persistence Pays.  Especially with busy, important people, it’s easy to have them blow off the preparation call.  In this case, Melissa, NSA’s Director of Meetings & Events, was dog-gone persistent!  They finally picked a date, and then one of the panelists couldn’t make it.  So Kate spent 1.5 hours on the phone with him the night before AND sent him a recording of the call!  Talk about being persistent!
  • Prep Work Pays Off.  All the panelists, the moderator and conference organizers got on a video conference call using Zoom.com.  “We had a conversation between all of us. Here’s how the panel is going to go….here’s the general direction.”  Essentially, she modeled the conversational tone she was looking for on the panel – without actually getting IN to the content of the panel!
  • Conversational Drumbeat.  Kate continually emphasized the importance of making it like a conversation. How?  “I pumped them up by saing ‘We just want to have a conversation here. You are the barracudas. You have this incredible information. It’s amazing we have you here! I just want to get as much out to this audience as we can in a conversational way.’ [The conference organizers were] backing me up on that too during the call.  [And right beforehand, I was saying] ‘This is a conversation. Don’t worry. Just let it flow. I’m not gonna get in the way. Just follow your instincts. Just have that conversation like we’re all sitting around discussing something really valuable and important to the people who are listening…Don’t be afraid to jump in.  You have a point to make, or somebody says something and you don’t agree, or you want to add to it, just go for it!’  And they got that they completely understood its conversational.”
  • Practice.  Kate moderated the whole panel without notes, cue cards or teleprompter.  She practiced in her office so that she was completely comfortable with the format, the introductions and sequence of questions – so that she could be completely present to the conversation in the moment.
  • Authenticity.  Do whatever you need to do to be comfortable and help your panelists be comfortable.  Heath had a composition notebook and other panelists worried that they should be taking notes.  Remember the drumbeat?  Whatever you need to do that will help you be present to the conversation and comfortable on stage.
  • Extractor.  Kate kept saying, “In my mind, I think I’m the extractor of the information I’ve already introduced them there on the stage.”  Using her reporter skills, she probed for more information when a nugget was left dangling!

A big shout out to Kate for sharing her wisdom and perspective on creating an amazing panel discussion at Influence ’16.  There are tons more takeaways, so you can watch the entire interview here.


For more resources on how to make meetings, panels, and room sets better, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

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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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