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With the rise of the coronavirus, many of us are meeting virtually (Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, or MS Team seem to be the most popular).  The panel format is a great way for experts to share their thoughts about how to deal with this pandemic, share best practices on not only surviving but thriving through this crisis.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know the basics of moderating a panel in a face-to-face (F2F) environment, then you won’t do well moderating in a virtual environment.  All the little things that a live audience won’t see (or will forgive) get magnified online.

When moderating a virtual panel discussion pay particular attention to the following:

  • Know Your Platform.  Don’t expect to just “hop on” to whatever platform your meeting organizer has scheduled.
    • Do a dry run on that platform – preferably with the panelists.
    • Make sure the audio and video work for all – and that they all have enough bandwidth – during the dry run AND 30 minutes before the panel starts.
    • Ensure there is adequate lighting on each panelist’s face – and that the camera isn’t looking up their nose (that happens more than I want to report!).
    • Show the panelists how to log on, mute themselves (especially if they have a coughing fit!), and turn the camera off (if for some reason they need to leave for a moment).
    • Look at the backdrop – what you see behind the moderator and panelists.  Remove any distracting elements.  (True story: I was moderating a panel and one gentleman had an abstract picture of a phallus behind him.  Didn’t even notice it until I watched the replay!)
    • Learn the platform capabilities e.g. chat box or polling features – and then figure out if you want to use them.  If your audience is brand new to virtual panels/webinars, then keep it simple.  Don’t try to use every feature available!
  • Webinar or Meeting Format.  Decide which format you will use:
    • Webinar Format: Preferable for audiences greater than 30 where only the moderator and panelists are visible.  Audience members may raise their hands to ask a question, type in a question or chat with their fellow audience members.
    • Meeting Format: Preferable for small audiences where the moderator, panelists, and audience members are visible to all.  This is a much more intimate format where you’ll need to decide whether you want the audience audio and/or video to be “on” or “off” upon entrance – and whether you want each audience member to be able to turn their audio/video controls on/off – or whether you as the moderator will control this ability.
    • Technologist.  It’s helpful to have another person manage the controls and to manage the “backchannel” (Watching the questions, chatbox, and other social streams.  They are in a perfect position to alert you of an interesting question or to consolidate similar questions for you).
  • Live and/or Recorded.  Some are going to watch the panel discussion live and some may be watching it later.  If so, make them feel included as well.  Something as simple as looking into the camera and saying, “For those of you who are watching this at a later time, you can email your questions and we’ll get back to you too!”
  • Have a Plant. No, I am not talking about the green, leafy variety.  Ask a colleague to log in as a participant and get the chat rolling.  Have them post any soundbite or takeaway into the chatbox.  It’s a great way to get the conversation going among the audience!
  • Last-Minute Check.  Before you go live, make sure y’all look beautiful: no lettuce in your teeth, your face has appropriate lighting and your background is suitable.  Remind all to turn off the air conditioner, the fan, the dishwasher or any other ambient noise.
  • Mingle. Just as you would mingle with the audience, as people come into the virtual room, encourage them to enter their name and location into the chatbox.  You might even want to post a quick question for them to answer.  And as you see the answers scroll in, welcome them by name!
  • Start Strong.  Online audiences get bored super, super soon, so it’s crucial that you take the time to think through how you are going to welcome the audience and introduce them to the technology and the topic, quickly introducing the panelists and getting right into the discussion.  People DO judge a book by its cover – otherwise known as the first three minutes.  You want them leaning in so they stay riveted and refuse to multi-task.
  • Shift Gears.  Audiences get bored when the conversation stays between the moderator and the panelists.  You’ll have to deliberately mix it up.  Do something as simple as taking a moment to look at the questions/chatbox or asking for someone in the audience to raise their hand.  Or ask your technologist to take a periodic poll.
  • Stimulate Conversation.  Unless your panelists are extremely comfortable with the format and each other, they will be looking to you to control the discussion as to who should talk and when.  So you’ll need to be much more cognizant of the questions you are asking and balancing the airtime.  In the ideal world, you have coached your panelists to make it as conversational as a face to face discussion.
  • Personalize the Q&A.  Make it personal by not only reading the question but saying the name of the person who submitted the question.  “Joe in Scottsdale, AZ has a question about XYZ.  [Looking into the camera], Hi Joe!  Glad you’re with us today!  Who wants to answer the question?” or you can suggest a panelist answer the question.
  • Extend the Conversation.  As with F2F panels, you’ll want to end the panel with some final thoughts and a call to action.  In a virtual panel, you may also have some unanswered questions or great ideas in the chatbox.  What are you going to do with them?  A great way to extend the conversation is to pledge that the panelists will respond to the unanswered questions within a few days of the panel.  (Of course, you’ll want to coordinate this with the meeting organizer and panelists beforehand!)
  • Have a Backup Plan.  Murphy will rear his ugly head…so think through what could go wrong and then try to prevent it from happening in the first place!  Here’s my go-to back up plan for virtual panel discussions:
    • Have the cell phone number of all the panelists just in case the audio or video drops.  We can always bring you in via audio (know how to do that, BTW).
    • Make sure your panelists shut down all programs running concurrently on their computers.
    • Have your panelists have a pair of headphones or earbuds at the ready in case there is audio feedback!
    • Have some interesting backup questions in your back pocket – just in case there aren’t any questions that come in from the audience!
    • Have all the panelists log on 30 minutes prior to the start time of the panel to check all the equipment.  Now you’ll have some time to troubleshoot any problems!

And don’t forget to have fun!  When you have fun, so does everyone else!



Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

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

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.


Photo: https://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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