I’ve been told I’m a good moderator for panel discussions at conventions. Recently, I was asked to mentor someone moderating her first panel. I had intended to just outline a few ideas, but it turned into something much larger. Below are the thoughts that I shared, which I hope can prepare you to moderate a panel at a convention. While this was written for SF/F/H conventions, it can be used by anyone moderating any kind of panel.
These are just my thoughts, so your mileage may vary.

What is your role as the moderator?

A moderator is accountable to the audience. You are not there to serve the ego of panelists.

This is your role. Who gets to talk and who doesn’t.

The audience is attending your panel (yup, its yours) to hear a good discussion on a topic they’re interested in. You must deliver that. This means not letting:

  • One person dominate the conversation,
  • One point of view dominate the conversation, and
  • Some jackass in the audience dominate the conversation (more on this point below).

You are a traffic cop; the panelists provide the discussion. You make sure everyone gets their say while keeping the audience in check. Even if you have a world-renowned expert on the panel, the others deserve their share of the time.
You should be positive, fun and enthusiastic. It is your role to keep the energy up.

How much do you participate?

The moderator is not a panelist. You need to remain neutral and keep the conversation going.
This means keeping your opinions on a topic in check. (There is a special ring of hell for moderators who use their role to advance their own agenda.) You might think X, but Y and Z are also options that audience members might want to hear about. You must get X, Y and Z on the table.
But if there are only two other 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.
If there are three panelists, you might be involved.
If there are four or more panelists, you are the traffic cop. There are enough opinions in play.

How To Prepare

Do a little research on your panelists. Know who they are. You don’t need to do exhaustive research; reading their bios on the convention website is often enough.
Have at least 5 questions prepared to ask the panel. Have them be open-ended, not questions someone can answer with “Yes” or “Five years.” Five questions should be enough to fill the panel (assuming it is an hour long).

Begin with introductions

I always begin panels by asking panelists to introduce themselves and then relate themselves to the topic. So something like “Tell us why you wanted to be on this panel” or “What interests you about this topic”. This helps let you know where they stand on the issue. In other words, are they “X”, “Y” or “Z”.
It also might give you fodder for more questions. Sometimes a panelist might say something in an offhanded way that sparks a whole new discussion.
Asking panelists to introduce themselves also lets you get a sense for their personalities—shy, soft-spoken, axe to grind.

Encourage panelists to speak

Let’s face it, we are a community of introverts. Some people might need to be coaxed to speak. If you have an audience member who has been silent, invite them to share an opinion. It could be that they have nothing to say, but make sure you give them the chance. “Jen, we haven’t heard from you. Any thoughts?”

Take notes during the panel

Take notes during the panel. They could give you ideas to keep the conversation going.
Take notes so you have ideas to keep the conversation going.

This is key. People will say something off the cuff, but it could be a great segue into another topic to discuss. Someone might mention something during their introduction you didn’t know which you can delve into later. “Wanda, earlier you said a zombie and vampire are the same basic monster, but what about the master vampire who retains her/his identity as an undead creature?” “Piotr, did your time in the army affect your writing?”

Keep the conversation on topic… Or don’t

Remember the audience is there to hear about the topic. If you are discussing Dr. Who, and you realize somehow the last 5 minutes have been about water on Mars, bring it back on topic. And you can just say “OK, to get back to Dr. Who” and chuckle as you say it. That is, unless the audience is into this new topic—leaning forward, asking questions, etc. In which case, you have to decide whether to let the discussion follow its course or bring it back on topic.

20 minute lull

When I first began moderating, I begin to worry at the 20 minute mark because I felt we weren’t going to make it through the full hour. If this happens, don’t panic—this happens. I don’t know why, but it does. I think that’s when the initial energy begins to fade. But then someone will say something, and you all will hit your second wind. And, you can always turn to the audience.
And if the panel runs out of gas early, admit it. Thank everyone and end the panel early.

Manage the audience

I’ve saved this topic for last because the audience will be your biggest challenge. There will always be someone who thinks they are on the panel and won’t shut up. So how do you to deal?
First, when starting the panel explain that the panel will talk for about 20 minutes or so, and then you’ll take questions. And be clear: To ask a question, put your hand up.
If someone just starts talking, cut them off (“Sorry, let’s hear her out” or “Hang out, I want to hear from the panel. We’ll take question is a bit.”) and go back to the panel. And remind people when you will be taking questions and how to ask.
As people put their hand up, acknowledge them. Even if a panelist is talking and/or you are not ready for their question, 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: “This gentleman in the Spider-Man hat.” “Yes, Poison Ivy at the back.” “Lady in the front row knitting me a scarf. It’s for me, right?”
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.”
Vary who gets to speak. There will be one person with their hand up all the time. Make sure others are heard. Say things like “Yes, in the Sailor Moon boots, we haven’t heard from you yet” or to the person who keeps asking question “I see you have your hand up first, but let’s go over here. We haven’t heard from her yet.”

You'll probably want questions from the audience, but beware of someone who never gets around to asking their question.
You’ll probably want questions from the audience, but beware of someone who never gets around to asking their question.

Be prepared for someone who isn’t asking a question but making a statement. Or, it takes them 5 minutes of set up to get to their question. You don’t have time for that. If you sense someone is standing on their soapbox or is taking to long to ask a question, be direct: “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 you get the rude jackass who keeps interrupting, be direct. “Hang on, let’s hear from the panel” or “She wasn’t done speaking yet.” You might even need to go as far as saying “Excuse me, but you’ve been interrupting us. If you have a question or comment, please raise your hand.” The longer this person is allowed to interrupt, the more they will do it. So shut them down quickly.
Maybe you think this is being rude to an audience member, but remember (1) you are there for the entire audience, not just one person and (2) that one person is being very rude.
One of my proudest moments as a moderator was a woman who kept loudly interrupting the panel (and other audience members trying to ask a question). I tried to politely deflect her at first, but her behaviour persisted so I became more direct and told her to stop interrupting. So she raised her hand while someone was speaking, I nodded to let her know I saw her, but after five seconds of her hand in the air she screamed “FUCK YOU PEOPLE!” and stormed out. You might think it’s bad I pissed this person off so much, but her anger pales to the sum of the frustration of everyone else in the room. Her absence made the panel run smoother, fulfilling my obligation is to the audience as a whole.

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!