Don’t Shoot the Moderator: How to Host a Great Panel

The SXSW Conference featured hundreds of keynotes, workshops, and sessions on film, interactive technology, and music—and some really, really bad panels.

In response, there was a call to banish the moderator. But that’s not necessarily the solution.

The same way that people blame PowerPoint for bad presentations, you can’t blame the format of the panel for a bad panel. I’ve attended and been part of many fantastic panels, and some of the best ones had moderators that were crucial to their success.

Here are 4 ways to improve your panel experience:

Assemble a great panel

Seems obvious, but it’s not just about each individual having outstanding credentials, it’s about a group of people that have great chemistry with each other. One of my favorite panels was assembled and moderated by Ann Winblad. Ann chose women that were honest, transparent, and funny, resulting in a detailed, balanced discussion on the topic of women climbing the career ladder. My team attended another great panel at SXSW on productivity. Afterward, they approached the speakers to congratulate them and found out that they were all sharing a house. The camaraderie amongst the group meant they were in sync and well prepared when they hit the stage.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Often, bad panels are the result of bad planning. Many panelists assume that they can just show up ready to speak off the cuff because they are subject matter experts, but this usually results in rambling. A successful panel requires a prepared list of questions. In preparation for her panel, Ann Winblad sent two pages of questions and hosted a call for us to provide feedback on them. The extensive preparation made for informative answers and a nice cadence. Similarly, the SXSW productivity panel had a pre-determined structure focusing on three over-arching topics. Each panelist answered in approximately 60 seconds, and the sections clocked in at 13 minutes, 15 minutes, and 14 minutes. You don’t reach that level of precision by winging it!

Ask provocative questions, give concrete answers

Even great panels can fall victim to vague questions. Broad questions result in overly generalized answers and bored attendees. During one panel, the moderator asked, “What are the benefits of social media analytics?” Answers included, “Show value to the organization”, “Measure the spend on a campaign” and “See how your customers feel.” Another panel used the generic question, “How did you come up with great ideas?” The answer, “We just got smart people in a room and it was so cool!” The responses didn’t give attendees any actionable steps to take, which is crucial for providing value to the audience. The productivity panel was successful because they gave actionable and relevant tasks, goals, and steps to help the audience implement their philosophy.

Watch the backchannel, never lose focus of the purpose of
your panel

The purpose of our panel is providing value to attendees. Social media is a great way to take the pulse of your panel in real-time. My team sat in one that experienced a brutal mocking on Twitter, and subsequently, a mass exodus. Several attendees blatantly asked if the panelists were checking Twitter using the hashtag for the session. If the panelists had been watching the back channel, they could have adjusted their style, pace, and topics based on what attendees were most interested in hearing. Panelists can even use the backchannel to take questions and provide short, actionable insights while the panel is happening.

Panels are a great way to spark interesting conversations and allow experts to discuss their subjects—but ultimately it should focus on providing an opportunity for attendees to learn more about a topic. Great panels don’t necessarily need to banish the moderator, they just need to invest the time to create great conversation and actionable insight.