Moderating a panel discussion

It’s not about you – it is about the guest panellists.

This means a few things for you:-

1.       There’s a balance between sharing a viewpoint and hogging the limelight

Your task is a tough one, maintaining an equilibrium of viewpoints and ensuring that everyone is given enough airtime to put their points across. You need to ensure that it is relatively fast-paced to keep the interest level up. I think it’s important to share a point of view here and there (perhaps two or three times) but to keep it brief. It shows you have some interest in the topic while ensuring a level of respect for the people who have actually been invited to share their opinion. Your input should therefore be a combination of comment and/or posing the appropriate question to the guest panellists.

2.       Understand your primary role

f you are a subject-matter expert on the topic for discussion, there is a danger that you may decide to air your views. But you need to remember that your primary task at hand is as a moderator – not a panellist. So, it meets expectations as well as is best when you do the job called for.

Preparation is key.


This is best achieved on a number of levels :-

1.       Understanding the subject matter for discussion. It is not necessary for you to know the A-Z on the topic. However, you do need, at the very least, to show awareness of some of the fundamental issues at play. Being prepared by way of more questions than answers is as good a way to begin as any, as a step in the right direction.

2.       Familiarity with the guests being called upon for the discussion. Know where they come from, do some research on their background and lastly, take the trouble to introduce yourself to them at least a few days before the session itself.

3.       Acquaint yourself with the event details. Be sure you know where the venue is, check it out a few days before if you need to, so you don’t lose valuable time on the event day should you get lost. Arriving late does not leave a good impression and will throw you off balance as you hurry to get yourself up to speed. You will also have lost the valuable opportunity of meeting your guest panellists prior to the session, which is truly important for setting the scene, to some degree. Find out how the session will take place, what the layout for the panel session will look like, what sort of seating arrangements will be in place, what sort of audio visual equipment you will be called upon to use. All these little things make a big difference when the actual proceedings take place. Like a little stone stuck in your shoe until you have a chance to remove it, it can be seriously uncomfortable when you make assumptions about things you ought to first check instead.

4.       Lots of questions. Personally, I find it better to be prepared with more questions than necessary as a back-up measure for the session. At best, I think that we usually will go through about two or three questions in a three panellist dialogue that lasts forty minutes. The assumption here is that everyone has a viewpoint that they will like to share.

5.       Be prepared that you will run out of time. It is a combination of slowly getting off the ground as the discussion warms up, how excitable people can get about a topic and have more to say on the topic than they may have initially planned, veering off course on to other areas just as thrilling and the gentle yet forceful tactics you need to employ to redirect them back. When you operate on the assumption that you will run out of time, you will make the kind of decisions about timing, cutting in and speeding up/slowing down as needed to close on time.

Introduce the guests on your panel after you have called them to take their places on stage.

The alternative (introducing your panellist one at a time and then calling them on stage) is, I find, not as effective. It looks clumsy and it doesn’t present well. Getting everyone up on stage, knowing where they need to sit and generally poised and ready to go before you start enables you and the guest panellists to settle down in your seats. An even better scenario is if there is an MC who will introduce you and then call all the guest panellists up on stage to take their places.

It is all in the timing.

The best piece of advice about moderating panels, that I received, was from my dad. He said to ensure that you have a time-keeper. There needs to be a timer which is loud enough for the panellists, the audience and yourself and it needs to be managed by someone other than yourself. The timer functions in three ways :

1.       Firstly, it very clearly tells the panellist when it is time to wrap up and then to stop talking completely. You would use the timer both as a warning of session end and then at session end.

2.       Secondly, it helps you do your job. You focus on the things that matter – running the show, keeping track of comments made and jotting down new questions to ask. You keep your eye on the clock but you cannot focus on the seconds passing by if you are making notes about what was said. Something’s gotta give.

3.       Thirdly, it shows the audience that you respect their time. It shows that you are taking this session seriously. There are probably some who believe interesting conversation outweighs the need to keep to time, or that important people should not be interrupted like so. But if you cannot manage time when running an event, it has a domino effect on the rest of the programme. Therefore it will affect how the event is perceived. In an age where time is the scarcest of commodities, keeping to it, is the barest minimum we should accord to all concerned.

Running the session on the day

1.       Start by introducing briefly to the audience, the session theme.

The best way is to describe what the session is aimed at and what it hopes to achieve. Talk about what issues the session will cover, the kind of questions that may be addressed as well as some of the controversial and trendy issues of the day, if there’s a fit.

2.       Explain how you intend to run the session.

You could embrace a few formats to find out what works best for you or just work with what feels comfortable. I used to run exclusively Q&A sessions but have now found that sessions which start with small short presentations work even better. It gives the guest panellists a chance to have their say unencumbered by the snappy format of a Q&A. This also enables the audience to get a much clearer picture of what the panellist is trying to say, as a whole. Ensure that you tell your audience how you intend to run with questions from the floor. Some moderators are happy to take questions ad hoc and some prefer to have them at the end. For better flow, I prefer to have questions from the floor, right at the end.

3.       Learn your guest panellists names and job titles.

Check with your panellists how their names ought to be pronounced. Trifling it may look but absolutely important. If these panellists also hold multiple roles in different capacities, they may prefer one job title over another.

4.       Tell the audience your rules for questions from the floor.

My usual rules are firstly, to introduce yourself before you start; secondly, to ensure the question is a question (as opposed to a rambling opinion); and thirdly, to keep the question short. I’ve been in situations where there are no questions but merely sharing of opinions. This is fine if you have time but generally, if you are short on time, these ‘sharing’ sessions can greatly jeopardise your ability to control your session.

Firstly, you don’t know the audience member who is sharing. You have not acquainted yourself with this person as you have with your guest panellists. Secondly, being physically far away from the audience member means you are not able to use much body language to control the situation as effectively as when you are seated right next to them. EQ is very much at play at this juncture. Thirdly, sharing can very quickly degenerate or go off-track. Fourthly, if you can’t control this last part of the session, it will impact on the overall session. Final impressions do have some bearing here, as much as the initial impression of the guests walking on stage. In short, ensure that the Q&A slot is indeed a question and answer session. Keep in mind that not every one of the panellists needs to weigh in. This gives you enough rope to manage timing. You can also suggest that further debate take place after the session itself. I would keep the rules for the Q&A for when the Q&A itself begins.

5.      Eye contact

Another key piece of advice I’ve received is to ensure that panellists understand that they are to speak to the audience and not the moderator. Tell them to face the audience each time they talk or respond to issues. Engaging with the audience starts with eye contact.

6.       Pre-event guidelines.

  • Explain your process to the guest panellists.
  • You should ideally meet a few days beforehand to get introduced to each other. If that is not optimal, then having phone conversations are a good alternative.
  • Do not leave things to chance. Explain what the session is about. Tell them how you intend to run the show, what you will focus on and what you will let slide. Explain the critical importance of time and how you will be guided by this strictly. Make it clear that occasions may warrant you cutting into whatever they are saying – it may seem rude but necessary to the timing of the show.
  • Be strong about the need to keep slides or video away. They detract from what needs to be said, oftentimes are unnecessary and in any case, this is not a presentation.
  • Notify panellists that you will ask for a key takeaway from each of them just prior to  session end.
  • A good way to see what each panellist is focused on is to ask them whether they might like a particular question asked of them.
  • While it is a good idea to let all panellists have a look at the questions for discussion, it is good to hold back on some. Too much preparation leads to prosaic contributions.
  • Lastly, make sure that all panellists, who get a few words in at the beginning of the session make their comments sitting down. Standing up to comment changes the dynamics, is harder for the moderator to control (from a timing perspective) and doesn’t look as smooth.

7.       Make sure the basic requirements are at hand.

  • There should be water for all panellists during the session.
  • There should ideally be a coffee table where the panellists are seated where mics, water and notes may be placed. It looks messy without any table for panellists to be holding sheets of notepaper.
  • It is preferable to have sofa chairs to high chairs/bar stools.
  • Where feasible, ensure that each panellist has his/her own mic instead of sharing mics. They then don’t have to wait for an opportunity for the mic and the discussion can flow smoothly.
  • It is also better for the moderator to decide on the seating arrangement by first deciding where he/she should sit. I initially found sitting in the middle useful but over time, find that sitting on the side is also just as effective as long as the chairs still face the audience more than the other panelists.
  • If you can, name cards placed on the table help although with large audiences, these will not be legible at the back of the room.
  • Finally, I find lighting has a large impact on how the session/event is perceived. You want a balance between a brightly lit (energetic space) versus darkish atmosphere (suitable for powerpoint presentations). Given we are not allowing slides during the presentation, dimmer ambient light throughout the room with a spotlight or two on the stage, where the panellists are, really presents a great atmosphere. Flowers and lit candles on the coffee table also help soften the mood.

8.       Exception to the slide rule.

The only slides to be used should describe the panellists on the session. The slides should provide the name the session and its timing. It should also list the names of the panellists preferably with their pictures so it is easier to identify them on stage.

9.       Give the panellists questions in advance.

Most of the questions should be given in advance to give them a chance to formulate some thoughts on the topic. Ensure panellists understand that there is small likelihood that all questions will be answered and further, that there may be follow-up questions based on what is shared during the discussion. Keep some questions to yourself to allow for spontaneity in responses.

10.   End well.

I find it good practice to end by naming all the panellists and their job titles once again and thanking them for their time and effort. Turn to the audience and thank them too for being part of the session. You should also find out in advance whether panellists are likely to stay for the entire event or only for your session – this way, you can leave open the opportunity that the audience may connect with these panellists individually during the refreshment breaks or at the end. Finally, end by welcoming feedback on your role as a moderator or any of the points raised.

Things to avoid

1.       A panellist embracing the moderator role. A recipe for disaster as neither job will likely be done well and there is a risk that as a subject matter expert, he may be more focused on his expertise that he fails to moderate effectively.

2.       Not having anything to say nor controlling the show. You cannot avoid it. If you fail at this, you let the show run wild. Panelists will go on a tangent of their own, audiences will get bored (if not irritated) and you will not be called on to moderate again. Running a panel requires a sense of fearlessness which can be daunting when you may not be familiar with the subject matter. However, as explained before, there is no necessity to be a subject matter expert – your role is to bring to light fruitful conversation and debate in a lively and entertaining fashion.

3.       Standing at the podium to moderate the session – you need to be part of the discussion, not apart from it.

4.       Not preparing questions from the floor. You cannot be sure whether there will be questions from the audience. It doesn’t look good to also have dead air. Therefore, I find preparing at least two people, from within the audience, in standby mode primed with a question each takes care of this. For an hour long panel session, I would not allocate more than ten to fifteen minutes for any Q&A slot.

What the moderator role is about

If I had to break it down, I would argue that these represent some of the things a moderator is called upon to do :-

  • Explore the different viewpoints presented by the panellists;
  • Give every one of the panelists a chance to be heard, to draw them out and allow them a chance to shine;
  • To challenge the staid view and to give people something to think about – to probe, to cajole, to ask the difficult questions;
  • Put on a show;
  • Lead, not be led.

In my line of work, facilitating and running presentation sessions, Q&A sessions and panel dialogues are very much part of my job. Certainly, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things to do when running a panel discussion. But I feel that these represent pretty much the fundamentals. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about this role of late is that facilitating a panel session is akin to presenting a show. There needs to be an element of mystique, showmanship and excitement for the session to work. I can’t say that I’ve done that effectively each time but I look at this as a work in progress, each session building on the strengths of past sessions, where I learn as I go.

There may also be things within your control (type of questions that form the meat of discussion) and things outside your control (length of the panel session and how the session has been formatted). You have to plan in advance how and what you will do yet keep in mind that as you proceed, you will be impacted by the event organisers, the other speakers presenting at the event, the guests on your panel session and how each of them approach their role. You may do a good job but you can be derailed by the actions of others. While you cannot control those elements, understanding that these things can happen will better prepare you and allow you to go with the flow. I’d also like to highlight four other noteworthy articles out there on how to moderate a panel discussion effectively, namely by Scott Kirsner, Guy Kawasaki, Alice Korngold and Rohit Bhargava.

Hope this gives you food for thought. I would warmly welcome comments !


About rowena morais

Media Communications and Editorial Specialist. With my strong professional network of contacts, I help individuals and organisations, particularly those within Human Resource and Technology, strengthen their skill-base and brand through compelling writing, beautiful design, content marketing and publishing. Let's talk.

3 responses to “Moderating a panel discussion

  1. Pingback: How to raise your visibility : You need to start speaking publicly at third party events | Rowena Morais

  2. Pingback: Tips for Being a Successful Speaker on a Panel Session | Rowena Morais

  3. WPKam

    A very helpful write-up. Thank you.


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