I could have screamed at a panel moderator who was clearly fawning over a famous panelist, “Stop showing favoritism during a panel discussion!” But that would have been rude, so I’ll tell you what tips off the audience that the panel moderator is NOT fulfilling their role of being “Neutral & Objective.” A person who withholds own personal opinions and judgment. Doesn’t show bias or favoritism toward any particular side, faction, or person.”
Airtime. When the panel moderator allows one panelist to have more “airtime” than all the others – even if they are all famous. If that person is such a big deal, conduct an interview vs. a panel!
Proximity. Just because a panelist is close to you doesn’t mean you have to cater to them. This is not a dinner party where you just talk to the people closest to you. You are the host and you need to involve everyone at the table.
Introductions. Just because you’re a fangirl doesn’t mean you should go on and on about your favorite panelist and say just a few words to introduce the other panelists. What you do for one you should do for them all.
Friendly. People tend to be more friendly to people they like and know. That can show up as casual conversation or banter, a bigger smile, a humorous quip – all of which are good tools for a panel moderator to use – just not all pointed toward one panelist!
Uneven Responses. Beware of using affirming words such as “great,” “good point,” or “awesome” to some panelists and blase (or no) responses to others such as “oh,” “yeah,” “um.”
Matching. Body language expert Traci Brown says, “You can spot favoritism when one person ‘matches’ another person in body language and tone. The panel moderator sitting the same way as a panelist is a clue as to who they are tuned in to the most. Watch how they speak at the same pace or repeat the same words. We are wired to follow those with whom we have a deep unconscious rapport.”
The subtle signals that we prefer one panelist over another do happen and it takes a high level of situational awareness to guard against favoritism during a panel discussion.
For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative leadership panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.
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.