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How much research should a moderator do in preparation for a panel discussion?

For some, not a lot is required because they are a seasoned moderator facilitating seasoned panelists discussing known issues and points of contention in front of a known audience.

For example, Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe Columnist and author of HBR’s article on How to Moderate a Panel Like a Pro doesn’t do a ton of research or preparation.

If you’re looking for a magic number (spend at least x hours searching the internet!), you won’t find it.  But here are some guidelines on what you should know about the topic, the panelists and the audience:

Research Audience Expectations.

  • In Their Shoes. Imagine the types of people (even specific individuals as a model) who are likely to attend. Preemptively ask some of the questions they are likely to ask.
  • Interview. Ask the conference organizer for the names and contact information for three “influencers” or “heavy hitters” who may be in the audience. Ask them what they would like to hear about and what challenges they are facing.
  • Social Media. Use the conference website, a blog post, Twitter or other feedback tool to glean questions from the community. Ask them to submit their most pressing issues and challenges.
  • Email or Voicemail Blast. Some organizations have the ability to blast a voicemail or email to all the participants encouraging them to attend the session and submit their questions.

Research the Topic.

  • You don’t need to be an expert, but you should have a working knowledge of the topic, terms, acronyms, key issues, challenges and perspectives to guide the conversation and ask thoughtful and insightful questions.
  • If you ARE the expert, you might want to consider being a panelist, rather than the moderator.

Research the Panelists.

  • Google their work and views they hold on the topic. Review the panelists’ websites, social profiles, books, reviews, bios, blogs, recent presentations, media mentions, papers, etc.
  • Take Notes. You don’t need to know everything about the panelists’ lives, but you should have a basic idea of their points of view on the topic. This will make it much easier to connect with and introduce each panelist.
  • Talk to Each Panelist either by phone or face to face and discuss:
    • Expectations. Let them know what to expect (go over the format) and then ask them about their experiences with panels.
    • Content. Given the topic, ask them what they would like to talk about. Tease out the juicy bits from the audience’s point of view. Look for possible areas of contention with the other panelists’ points of view.
    • Rapport. As you talk to each of the panelists, you are not only assessing their speaking strengths, style and perspectives, but you are also creating a connection and building trust.

Generate a Draft List of Questions. As a result of all this research, compile a list of potentially provocative questions. These questions should be insightful and specifically:

  • Tied to the topic
  • Reflective of a specific panelist’s work or interests
  • Representative of issues the audience will be interested in
  • Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need – and make sure they cover the topical landscape.

It is your job to facilitate the conversation so the audience receives tremendous value from their expertise and perspectives. You cannot do this effectively if you don’t know the people on your panel, the topic or what your audience expects.

To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.

Related Articles:

10 Actions Moderators Can Do AFTER the Panel Discussion is Over

Moderating a Panel of Your Peers – What’s Different?

When the Panel Moderator is also an Expert

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

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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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