12 Rules for Life: How to Excel as a Moderator

Julius Ritter
4 min readNov 18, 2023
Maintaining eye contact with the audience should be another rule. Credit: Barak Shrama.

I’ve moderated countless panels, and wrote a post on how to host larger speaking events. This time, I’ll talk about the specifics on how to not suck as a moderator. Here are my (somewhat, let’s see how many I end up with) 12 Rules, many of which I‘m still improving on.

Please — always push back.

Preparation

1. Don’t send the questions to the panelists beforehand (controversial), and don’t prepare more than a few main questions (controversial). A Panel Briefing containing the topics is enough. Become a people and a subject matter expert instead: Read their books, devour their website content, linkedin posts and videos. Your time is better spend here.

The Panel — Introduction

2. Don’t let panelists introduce themselves. You are in charge of crafting the narrative of the next 30–60 minutes. Provide background, and a personal anecdote:

“Mark, I had actually read your book on politics in AI in Prof. Groth’s class, which served as my introduction to AI in the context of geopolitics. It was one of the reasons I ended up spending my Summer in Brussels to engage in AI regulation myself.”

However, no one cares about the panelist position from 2014 or 2017. Focus on the meaning of their occupation than just reading out their title.

Bad example:

“Rich, you’re the Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurships Officer at UC Berkeley”

Instead I suggest:

“Rich, you’re responsible for bulding start-up ecosystem at UC Berkeley, which has ‘produced’ more venture-backed start-ups than on any other university campus!”

3. State the goal of the conversation in the beginning. The audience will be able to follow the talk more easily.

The notetakers. Credit: Barak Shrama.

The Panel — Main Part

4. If the conversation does not unfold naturally, encourage panelists to ask questions to one another. State that openly — as long as you are dealing with experienced panelists.

5. Summarize the panelists main points. Especially if they bring up a topic that the audience is not equally familar with, a brief summary showcases your appreciation, and makes the shift to the next topic feel either natural or even allows for an explicit transition:

“The point you made on X leads me to ask about Y”.

6. Bring a notebook. Not a list of questions. Bullets can help structure your panelists thoughts.

7. Engage and get to know the audience without being cringe. “By a show of hands”, is an old trick. It only works if the answer is non-trivial, for example to give the audience a chance to identify with a group.

A bad example:

“Who of you has ordered something online recently?”

A good example:

“Can we get a show of hands of how many students are here? — Founders? — Researchers?”

This enables you to gauge the expertise of the audience.

8. You’re the conductor, but not playing the first fiddle. Your opinion does not matter — unless you announce to play devil’s advocate to provide a different perspective.

The Panel — Wrapping it Up

9. Q&A — it’s a must. You can rarely go wrong with asking for questions. There does not seem to be a single “right” way to moderate a Q&A. I prefer to have the question asked from the audience direclty, but in occasions with 200+ audience members, Slido gives the opportunity to upvote questions and thus works better; especially under time constraints.

10. Organize a Speaker Dinner, Lunch or Breakfast beforehand and make sure to set time aside to meet speakers before the event in a casual, yes, definitely more casual atmosphere. “Let’s reserve the smart takes for tomorrow”, as Lisa Thee put it, had set the stage perfectly for a personal atmosphere during my latest panel.

Afterwards

11. Make sure you can answer common organizational questions: You will want to know when the panelist can expect photos, the recording of the event, etc. Even if you’re not the main organizer, it’s your responsibility to function as a point of contact — before and after the event.

12. Handing over gifts feels more like a necessity to me. Flowers, wine, chocolate, merchandise —I personally prefer spending time together afterwards. I despite the term post mortem, but a casual debrief helps to wrap up some unfinished conversations from stage.

My latest take on 12 Rules for School — What I learned in College so you don’t have to.

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Julius Ritter

Passionate about Entrepreneurship, Education, AI and our careers!