An article in the Atlantic magazine argued that panels would be better without a panel moderator. Coming into “peak bad panel season,” her expectations of the myriad panels at SXSW were not all that high. (By the way, she is one of many people who don’t have high expectations of panels – see the 2014 Panel Report for more on that).
The premise of the article is that panels would be better off without a moderator, so ditch the moderator. Well, if you ditch the moderator, then you don’t have a panel; you have a roundtable discussion (or an “UnPanel“). Different format and not a panel.
So what does a moderator actually do that makes the panel worthwhile? The moderator’s job is to help the audience get their needs met through a panel format. The moderator sets the tone, the pace, and control of the content, staying ever-vigilant in keeping it relevant for the audience. It is the moderator’s responsibility to make sure the panel is lively, engaging, and worthwhile.
Depending on the panel objectives, the panel moderator has several roles and responsibilities:
Champion for the Audience. Makes sure the panel is talking about timely issues that the audience cares about. Continually assesses and reacts to the audience, keeping the conversation on track and meaningful for them.
Facilitator. Sets the agenda and ground rules, keeps the discussions on track, brings out differing opinions and the most interesting information, balances panelist participation, clarifies any confusion, takes questions from the audience, and intervenes as needed – especially when a long-winded panelist dominates the conversation.
Timekeeper. Makes sure the panel starts and ends on time and follows the time frames on the agenda. Makes sure they don’t spend too much or too little time on any one single element.
Instigator. Probes beneath the surface, asking tough questions of the panel, building the dialogue, keeping the conversation lively, and getting out of the way when the conversation is going well. Asks specific questions to push the panelists to share details rather than speak in generalities. Gets the dialogue going with the audience and sustains the conversation in order to get their questions answered.
Content Coordinator. Works with the panelists to make sure their points of view and presentations (if they have one!) do not overlap. Identifies the areas of debate and controversy. Coordinates slideshows where appropriate.
Energizer. Models energy and enthusiasm. Works the room and intentionally creates opportunities for audience interaction. Injects a little humor where appropriate to keep it lively.
When a good moderator takes on these roles, there isn’t a need to ditch the moderator. Unfortunately, when you have an unskilled moderator who makes the typical moderator mistakes, you’re probably better off having a roundtable discussion!
For more information about the panel moderator’s role, check out Video #2 of our 7-part video learning course – The Panel Moderator Role in Panel Discussions: