I’ve been told I’m a good moderator for panel discussions, so to help others who might be moderating for the first time here are some thoughts and techniques. This is based on my experience at literary conventions, but I hope it can be useful to all.

In this post I’ll cover:

  • your role as the moderator
  • how to keep the discussion going
  • handling questions and answers from the audience
  • how to deal with rude behaviour

What is a panel discussion?

A panel discussion (or just “panel”) is several people plus a moderator discussing a topic usually for an hour. It’s not a debate (though it can turn into one), interview or lecture. The goal is for the audience to hear a good discussion about a topic to learn more about it or discover new perspectives. Sometimes it’s as simple as spending time hearing people talk about something you love.

Whether or not to take questions from the audience is up to you. More on that later.

Understanding your role as moderator

The moderator is there to make sure there actually is a discussion, and that it runs smoothly. Panelists should have a lot to say, but you need to guide the conversation. This means:

  • Everyone gets a chance to speak
  • Only one person speaks at a time
  • People can disagree and be passionate in their views, but it must be done respectfully
  • You stay on topic

How to prepare

Do three things to prepare for a panel.

1) Research the topic: If you don’t know about the topic, do some basic research, but don’t need to be an expert. Not knowing too much means you might ask questions that the panelists assumed were a given.

2) Research your panelists: Know what they might bring to the discussion. Again, there’s no need to dig too deep. Reading their bios is often enough.

3) Have at least 5 open-ended questions: Use these to prompt a conversation. Don’t ask simple questions that can be answered with “Yes” or “Two years.” And don’t be afraid of something controversial since that can spark great discussions, but this does not mean something insulting or demeaning. Five questions with four panelists having 2-minute answers gives you 40 minutes. With introductions, other discussions and audience Q&A (if you do one), that should be enough to fill the time.

Begin the panel

I follow four basic steps to start a panel I am moderating.

1) Get the audience’s attention: Simply say, “Okay, we’re starting. Thank you all for coming.” Don’t be afraid to raise your voice to get people’s attention—they are there for the panel.

2) Give the panel’s name: Once the room has quieted down, say the name of the panel. Sometimes people, even panelists, are in the wrong room.

3) Summarize the panel: Explain what you will be discussing, and if you will be taking questions and when: If there are topics you consider out of bounds, say so. For example, if you are talking about film adaptation of Stephen King’s books, does that include TV mini-series or not? This lets you guide the discussion and remain on topic.

4) Ask the panelists to introduce themselves: Give their names, a brief bio, and how they relate to the topic. Something like “Tell us why you wanted to be on this panel” or “What interests you about this topic”. This lets you know where they stand on the issue, and might introduce an idea you’ll want to revisit during the panel. It also gives you a sense of their personalities—soft-spoken, excited, axe to grind.

During the panel

You never know how a panel will go. There are a number of things to keep in mind.

Do you participate in the discussion?

The moderator is not a panelist and should stay out of the conversation. This allows you to remain neutral and keep the conversation going. You may have one or two things to share, but it’s hard to run a discussion fairly while you are part of it.

However, if there are only one or two panelists, you might need to interject, but be clear that what you are saying is your opinion, and then jump back into your (neutral) moderator role.

Take notes

This is very important. An off the cuff comment could be a great segue into another topic to discuss. This can be useful if the panel is slowing down.

Encourage panelists to speak

Some panelists may not be comfortable in front of a group or have trouble getting into the flow of the conversation. If you have a panelist who has been silent or you’ve seen trying to get into the conversation, invite them to share an opinion. It can be as simple as: “Jen, we haven’t heard from you. Any thoughts?”

At the same time, there might be a panelist who is dominating the conversation. You might need to reel them in by saying “Thank you for your thoughts, but let’s hear from the others.”

Keep the conversation on topic… Or don’t

It’s very common for a discussion to go off topic. Even if that thread is animated and interesting, it’s not what the audience is there to hear about.

Let the conversation go for a minute or two in case the panelists bring it back on topic on their own. If they don’t, a simple “I feel like we’re getting off topic here, let’s bring it back to…” is enough.

However, see how the audience is reacting. If they seem engaged, let that thread continue. If they seem bored, though, return the conversation to its topic.

Use the microphone

Some conventions will have microphones for the table. Use them and ensure the panelists do. Even if a panelist can project their voice, not everyone can hear them. This is especially true for those with hearing difficulties.

If someone in the audience asks a a question, summarize it using the microphone before the panelists reply. (H/t to Kate Heartfield.)

The 20-minute lull

It’s very common for a panel to run out of steam at the 20-minute mark. Don’t panic. For whatever reason, this happens a lot. That is why it’s important to have a list of questions and to take notes that you can use to keep the conversation going.

Ending the panel early

There will be times that, even with prepared questions and good notes, a panel runs out of things to say before its allotted time. That’s fine. Say “Well, it seems like we’ve exhausted that topic.” Thank everyone and end the panel early.

Questions and answers

Whether or not to take questions from the audience is up to you. Balance helping the audience learn by allowing them to ask specific questions against the Q&A becoming an audience against the panel discussion.

In general, I like to have the panel talk for 30 minutes and then allow the audience to ask questions. But, I’ve also done panels that were just a Q&A with the audience.

Announce how questions will be handled

If you are going to take questions, explain at the beginning how it will work—the last 15 minutes, people ask questions any time, you will let them know when they can ask.

To ask a question, someone must put their hand up—don’t just blurt them out.

When people put their hands up

If someone puts their hand up, acknowledge them. Even if a panelist is talking, make eye contact with the audience member and give a nod or small wave to let them know you see them.

When you call on someone, be clear who you mean: “Lady in the front row knitting a scarf.”

If various people have their hands up, set up your order: “I’m going first to the gentleman with the beard at the back, then over to this lady with the stuffed TARDIS and then over to the Flash t-shirt.”

There is bound to be someone who has their hand up often. If they are the only person asking questions, that’s fine, but everyone should have a chance to ask a question. If you call on someone else and they seem impatient, say “I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to ask a question” and call on the other person.

Don’t let a question become a debate

Sometimes a person who asked a question might ask a follow-up or push back on the answer they received. And the panel might be eager to engage. Do not let this happen. It’s not fair to the other audience members (who might be waiting to ask their own questions), can get heated, and encourages others to jump in, making things even more unruly.

The audience may have something to add or contribute, but isn’t there to debate the panel. Even if it’s clear the audience member is very well-versed in the topic, they are not on the panel. A simple “Thanks, you had a chance to ask your question and now let’s hear from someone else” should suffice.

People need to actually ask their question

Sometimes, someone with a question takes a long time to set up the context for their question. This is taking time away from others. A technique to try is to tap your foot about once per second and count to ten on your fingers (so you’re not counting in your head and distracted), but below the level of the table so it can’t be seen.

When you get to ten, say “I’m not hearing a question here” or “You need to get to your question because others have questions they’d like to ask.”

If they still can’t get to a question, explain “Thank you, but there isn’t a question here so we need to move on.” You can take another question, or if there’s enough context discuss what the audience member had said.

When a question is “more of a comment”

It’s a running joke among frequent panelists to hear someone declare “It’s more of a comment than a question.” If you hear this, reply “Then please be very brief.”

The danger with these comments is that, quite often, the person takes a long time to explain their point of view on the subject. Rarely does the audience learn from it. The person might also just be trying to advance their own ideology, satisfy their ego or stir up trouble.

There are times when these comments do add to the discussion, but often those beneficial comments can be expressed in a sentence or two.

If they are not, move along, especially if others are waiting to speak.

Dealing with rude behaviour

Rude audience members can be one of the biggest challenges for a moderator. Most audience members will be polite and respectful, but there will be some who interrupts or acts as if they were on the panel.

It’s your job as moderator to stop this as soon as it starts. Keep in mind that if someone interrupts you and isn’t corrected, they and others will be more emboldened to do it again. A panel can very quickly get out of hand.

When dealing with rude behaviour, my approach is to give the person as little attention as possible—use only a few words, don’t make long eye contact, don’t orient my body toward them. Engaging with them gives them recognition they might see as permission to continue their behaviour.

Remember: You don’t need to justify your actions. If an audience member starts talking, say “It’s her turn to speak”, “We’re not taking questions yet” or “Please don’t interrupt.” If they continue to interrupt, be direct: “If you don’t stop interrupting, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

This might seem like you are being rude, but you have a larger obligation to the panel and the rest of the audience.

Ending the panel

The organizers should tell you when to wrap up the panel, usually 5 or 10 minutes before the hour. It’s your job to watch the clock and end on time.

I like to bring the conversation to a stop with 5 minutes before the scheduled end time and let the panelists sum up any last minute thoughts.

Once that is done, I make sure to thank the audience for attending and to thank my panelists.

After the panel

Leave the room to make space for the next panel

When the panel is over, leave the room. It’s common for a conversation among panelists to continue after the formal panel is done, or for audience members to want to talk. If you are comfortable with it, that’s fine, but another panel is likely to start right after yours so get out of the way.

If an audience member confronts you after the panel

Sometimes audience members approach you to debate or disagree with something you said. I have seen this get heated at times, especially when talking about subjects people love deeply. They may feel that once the panel is over, they can have a one-on-one discussion that, unfortunately, they treat as a chance to educate or correct you on a certain topic. This can be very uncomfortable and sometimes frightening.

If you are not comfortable, say so. A simple “I don’t want to talk about this” should do the trick. If it does not, say it again and louder. Don’t be afraid to walk away and find an organizer. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable and the organizers want to know about it.

On the other hand, sometimes these discussions—with polite people—can be quite rewarding.

Anything I missed?

If you have advice or suggestions for panel moderators, please put them in the comments below. I’d love to hear your feedback!