Moderating a panel discussion takes thought and preparation. You need to know your panelists' background and the kind of perspective and insights they can offer in order to get the best out of the discussion for your audience.
Sifted journalists spend a lot of time on stage chairing panels — especially at this time of year, when the tech events season is in full swing. In Sifted's Startup Life newsletter, co-authors Anisah Osman Britton and Miriam Partington gave their top tips for making a panel discussion sparkle.
Schedule a prep call
Get on the same page. Double check everyone’s clear on logistics. Outline the topics you’ll be discussing and ask them what burning points and key takeaways they want to get across. You should also set expectations:
- What’s the tone of the panel?
- Is it super formal or a really relaxed conversation?
- Do you want panellists to bounce off each other or do you want them to always wait for the moderator to direct a question to them?
- You may also want them to know you will stop them mid-sentence if they’ve been going on too long or if they meander off topic.
Calm people down — some people have done loads of panels, others haven’t. Just reassure them that you’re not there to catch them out. Answer any questions they may have and build camaraderie. Use the call as an ice-breaker — get everyone to introduce themselves and learn how to pronounce their names. Having comfortable, not awkward, interactions is key to creating a valuable and impactful panel conversation.
Research your panellists
Know the background of the people you are interviewing — the industry they come from, the organisations they’ve worked for, the companies they’ve built, the causes they’re passionate about — to better understand the insights and expertise they can provide on the panel.
Make it a conversation
Prepare ahead of the interview and jot down questions to ask your panel, but don’t stick rigidly to the script — that’s boring. Instead, bounce off your panellists, ask follow-on questions and encourage them to comment on each other’s thoughts. Create some friendly debate. A panel should feel more like a friendly chat than an interrogation.
Cut off long-winded answers
Don’t let a panellist ramble on. Your job is to make sure the conversation is balanced and to give each panellist enough air time. If someone is taking their time on stage, try to interrupt them at the end of a sentence and say, "I'm going to have to stop you there as I’d love to get [Joe Blogg’s] view on this" or "Sorry to cut you off but to ensure we have enough time for the next part of the conversation, I wanted to ask…". Tell panellists in your prep call that this is what you’ll do.
Go deep, not wide
When you have a panel full of exciting personalities, it’s easy to want to cover everything. Instead, pick two or three key topics you want to talk about and really get into the nitty gritty.
If it’s an industry panel, as well as getting opinions and data, get the panellists to share practical tips and advice that the audience can take away and implement — maybe it’s processes to put in place, tools to use, books or articles to read, shows to watch or podcasts to listen to. If you provide value then you, the event and your company will be remembered.
Don’t be afraid to show personality
As moderator, your main goal is to create space for valuable conversation with the questions you ask, the time you allocate to people and the flow of conversation you dictate. However, you are also a part of the panel, so be yourself: be high energy, funny, sarcastic, etc. It’s also OK to insert your own opinions where relevant.
At the end of the panel, take 30 seconds to a minute to highlight a few of the things you’ve learnt from the conversation. Then, thank all the panellists and offer the audience a place where they can find out more about them — for example, their socials or a website. Ensure you also plug yourself or your company at the end too — you’re running the event for a reason.
On the subject of...
❌ Contrary to our advice, this Harvard Business Review article says that you shouldn’t prep with your panellists — and that pre-panel calls are a no-no.
💻 Planning a virtual panel? Here are some top tips from podcast platform Riverside.fm.
☕ The audience is comfortable when you are comfortable. Invite the panel to socialise over a coffee right before you go on stage — it’s more useful than prep calls.