Moderating a Virtual Panel Discussion? Embrace the Opportunity to Facilitate a Memorable Conversation

Virtual Event PanelPanel discussions are an excellent way to showcase a diversity of opinions and perspectives on a single topic. The challenge is that audiences sometimes find them dry and confusing, even when the best experts participate and the topic is compelling. This problem is amplified with many events and conferences shifting to virtual spaces.

The good news is that innovative organizations and speakers can find ways to engage virtual audiences. When it comes to panel discussions, your secret weapon is finding a moderator who knows how to create a cohesive experience and facilitate a memorable conversation between your panel and the audience.

Whether you are organizing an event or have been tapped to moderate a panel discussion, it pays to consider how moderators contribute to the success of the session. A moderator’s performance can be the difference between a ho-hum session and an engaging conversation that continues long after the panel discussion ends. What lessons can you learn from the experts?

Moderators, HITT It Off With Your “Guests”

First, the moderator is essentially the emcee of the panel discussion, and great moderators see their role as crucial to the success of the session. Success during a virtual panel discussion might look different from the live version, but different doesn’t have to mean more difficult. Many of the same success factors for physical events still apply here. When moderators think about how they can help panelists and listeners alike feel invited into a conversation, everyone benefits.

After years of hosting events and talking with experts, we came up with the acronym HITT as an easy device to help moderators prepare for their role—before, during, and after the event.

Host: As a moderator, your role is similar to that of the host at a dinner party. Consider what hospitality looks like when you entertain in your home. How do you welcome guests? How do you help guests become acquainted? How do you facilitate conversations among them? Moderators should think of the audience and panel of speakers as their guests.

Introduce: One of the most important responsibilities as a moderator is introducing each panelist. Because you are charged with “setting the scene,” if you simply read each speaker’s bio, you risk losing the audience before the conversation even begins. Instead, draft a 30-second introduction that goes beyond what’s in their bios.

Transition: A panel discussion can seem confusing from the audience’s perspective because it’s not always clear why these 3 or 4 individuals were invited to participate. This out-of-the-gate confusion can make it difficult for the audience to predict where the conversation might go.  As the moderator, you can be the glue that brings the session together. A sentence or two of transition letting the audience know where they’ve been and where they’re going will make the session cohesive.

Time: As a moderator, you get to decide how to divide the time during your session and communicate that with your guests. Do the math based on the time allotted. Keep in mind that you’ll need a few minutes up front for housekeeping and then again at the end for a strong summary and close. Finally, make sure your panelists know how much time they have and use time signals to keep everyone on track.

Knowing your responsibilities as a moderator is the first step toward facilitating an effective session, but if you really want to make that panel discussion a memorable experience, borrow a page from the experts with these four keys to success.

4 Keys To a Truly Memorable Panel Discussion

Select the Right Panelists.In many cases, moderators are involved in the pre-planning and other aspects of organizing an event or panel session. For example, if you are helping to organize a conference sponsored by a professional association in your industry, you may be involved in helping to select the panel you will then moderate.

If you are part of the organizing committee, consider the goals for the event and for your panel discussion. In most cases, panels are assembled for the purpose of presenting multiple perspectives on the same topic. The key is to select panelists who can speak with a clear purpose about the topic in a way that’s motivating to your audience.

We asked leadership coach and seasoned moderator, Jim Reklis, his criteria for choosing panelists. He offered the following advice: “If possible, choose panelists with a track record of success and affiliation with your organization, who identify with your guiding principles.” Tapping into the expertise within the organization can solidify the success of your event, especially when the stakes are high.

Prepare Well in Advance. Whether an in-person or virtual panel discussion, preparation is essential. Set-up one or two meetings with all the panelists and behind-the-scenes coordinators (e.g., event producers and technical experts) ahead of the event. This is the time to get to know the panelists’ unique perspectives and how they would like you to introduce them. Ask relevant, thought-provoking questions and use their answers to craft pithy introductions.

During these pre-planning meetings, you can also take time to explain the schedule, how much time each panelist will have, and what questions they should be prepared to answer. Once everyone is on the same page about the flow of the session, go over the technology-influenced elements. If you’re using slides, explain how this will be handled as well as how Q&A will work. The key here, according to Roger Courville at Eventbuilder, is to think in terms of behaviors you want to produce. For example, instead of thinking “make sure their camera works,” think “help them look better on camera.” Preparing well in advance ensures that everyone is on the same page and comfortable before the big day arrives.

Ask the Right Questions. Perhaps most crucially of all, great moderators know how to set up their speakers for a “hit” by asking the right questions. Besides coming up with great questions to guide panelist introductions, you will want to ask the questions that will draw out your panelists and facilitate a conversation that is enriching for all involved.

“A great question invites the speaker to bring out the best responses showcasing their knowledge and experiences. It sets them up for success, which is the key role of a panel moderator,” says Reklis. When you ask a series of progressive questions giving each panelist a chance to answer where they have the most value to contribute, the conversation will flow naturally.

Here is one successful questioning strategy Reklis recommends:

  • Share a list of questions with your panelists ahead of the event, asking them to choose 3-4 they want to answer based on their unique perspective.
  • During the session, ask 2 or 3 panelists to answer each consecutive question, then ask if anyone else on the panel would like to add to what was said with a brief comment.
  • Rotate through panelists. This gives each panelist the chance to be the first, second, and third to answer a question.

Get Comfortable the Day of the Event. As a moderator, you can make your panelists feel comfortable by meeting and greeting them at least 30 minutes prior to “show time.” This is natural and easy during live events, but you should also do this for virtual events. The meet and greet gives you the chance to re-establish rapport the day of the event and work out any last-minute details, as well as test technology.

For a virtual panel discussion, one effective strategy is to put the moderator in a chat room with the panelists prior to the start of the program. It is similar to a live event that has 30 minutes of networking time or a green room where speakers gather before the main program starts. According to Reklis, who recently participated in an event using precisely this strategy, meeting ahead of time gave everyone—panelists and the moderator—the chance to “get warmed up, locked in, and ready to go for the main program.”

The next time you organize an online event or raise your hand to moderate a virtual panel discussion, make sure you’re prepared to help your panelists shine. Consider how you can make your “guests” feel invited into a conversation, then apply these keys to success, and watch the magic unfold!