How to moderate a business panel discussion successfully

By Jon Lam, Toastmasters International

You may well have attended panel discussions at conferences or other business events. Perhaps one where industry experts discuss current business issues or look ahead to the future of the sector.  The success of a panel discussion relies on how it is chaired or moderated.  To raise your profile, you might want to take opportunities to moderate a panel yourself.

If you step into this role, how can you make sure the speakers’ different perspectives are shared and that the audience gets value from the discussion?  Let me share some of what I have learned from my own experience.

Expect the unexpected

Unexpected things will happen ranging from technical glitches to over-dominating panellists. This means it’s best to prepare for a situation where you may have to improvise. In a panel discussion I once moderated, technical glitches caused a speaker to lose connection. I had to improvise to keep up the momentum of the discussion.

One way to prepare for the unplanned is to enhance your impromptu speaking skills. Practising in a group is the best method to start with. You can do this with friends or by seeking out public speaking groups such as a Toastmasters International club where you can practise talking about any topic without preparation.

Talk with the panellists in advance

Make sure that your panellists are aligned on the flow of the discussion. This can involve confirming the allotted time for the whole discussion and sharing your questions in advance so that panellists have ample time to prepare their answers.

Common occurrences in panel discussions are awkward silences or where a panellist goes completely off-topic.

One method to offset these risks is to assign each question to the specific panellist who can add the most value. This panellist will be your main speaker to answer the question, and then you can check if the other panellists want to contribute. This preparation can help avoid situations where panellists are caught off guard with a question they cannot answer or having them go off on a tangent in an attempt to answer.

Ensure time is shared appropriately

It is important for the moderator to make the event feel like a discussion. If you see that one panellist is dominating, it is crucial that you speak up. To do this you must listen to the discussion rather than focusing on your performance as a moderator. By doing this, you’ll be able to ask relevant follow-up questions to the panellists that have spoken less, thus also pushing the discussion forward.

For those situations where you are faced with a dominating speaker, a good technique is to preface a question as a ‘lightning round’ or request a ‘one sentence’ answer if time is limited.

Help the Q&A to work well

After your panellists finish speaking, you may have questions from audience. Instead of having your audience shout out their questions, find a way (there are various apps etc. that can help here) to have questions sent to you throughout the whole panel discussion. This way you’ll have a wider selection of questions to pick from and can filter out any inappropriate questions. You’ll then be able to ask relevant and popular questions that will add value to the audience and provide them with a more insightful experience.

A nightmare for all moderators is a situation where there are no questions at all from an unengaged audience. One method to mitigate this is to prepare your own set of questions. This way, you’ll be able to avoid the awkward silence as you wait for questions to come in. Furthermore, you can continue the momentum of the session with questions that your audience may find valuable but may not have thought of.

A final call-to-action 

What is the best way to finish a panel? One good technique is to summarise briefly the key points that were covered and conclude with a call to action. A ‘call to action’ is an invitation to the audience to take a desired action. This can be for the audience to reach out to the panellists if they have any further questions, or to visit a website for more resources on the topic. This can help you prolong the engagement you have with the audience and give them a clear sense of what they can do with the insight gained from the discussion.

It takes practice and preparation to successfully moderate a panel discussion, but it well worth taking the time to hone your skills for this role.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Lam is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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