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As the moderator of a panel discussion, 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 haven’t done your research and don’t know the people on your panel, the topic, or what your audience expects.

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.

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 tools 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 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.  WARNING: This research should take at least several hours – or more if you get sucked into the Google vortex!
  • 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.

When you research the audience, the topic, and the panelists, you will be much better equipped to be a champion for the audience, making sure you ask interesting and provocative questions that deliver on the panel’s promise.

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

Related Articles:

How to Structure a Panel Discussion

Creating Great Questions for Your Panel Discussion

Panel Moderator Checklist for Meeting with Panelists Prior to Panel Discussions

How Much Research Should the Panel Moderator Do?

For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series or our other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

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Kristin Arnold



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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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