Benjamin Joffe
Oct 28, 2018 · 10 min read

Note: this turned into a long article, but I think it’s worth reading if you do public speaking as panelist or moderator. Think about it: less than 10 minutes invested to avoid having days of travels go to waste, and make sure you create as much value as possible!

By now I’ve likely spoken at over 300 events, and moderated many discussions. I often feel that the moderator role is under-appreciated. I also feel that moderators are not created equal.

So here are some thoughts for moderators, event organizers, but also for panelists, on how to make a panel great.

A good moderator will make any panel good

While amazing panelists can’t save the trainwreck driven by a bad moderator, a solid moderator can figure out what interesting ideas to get out of any (?) panelists: they know interesting things, your job is to get it out of them!

Just check ‘between two ferns’ (2008~present) for good examples of trainwrecks (and note that the concept was likely lifted from France’s Raphael Mezrahi who started back in 1992).

The vibe is not good

What makes a good moderator

‘I know one when I see one’ ;)

To me, a good moderator is a ‘benevolent dictator’

A good moderator is a ‘benevolent dictator’

You can find plenty of ideas elsewhere on this, like researching the topic, researching your panelists, keeping silent … (the HBR piece is not bad but I don’t fully agree — for instance on no prep, no slides, not contributing … but that’s another story, maybe I’ll send them a piece to publish sometime).

Yet, I believe great moderation also lies in more subtle things.

Among them, being able to:

  1. Look for something new
  2. Give context
  3. Summarize ideas
  4. Ask candid questions
  5. Make candid comments
  6. Interrupt graciously
  7. Encourage panelists to comment on each other
  8. Use the audience intelligently for reactions or questions.

In addition to keeping your panel on track, it also give hints to panelists and audience about what the rules are, and encourages them to be as candid. I’ll detail below.

01/ Look for something new

Nobody wants either sales pitches, parallel interviews (it’s not a panel) or only common knowledge.

Make sure to address the elephant in the room: the big companies, major countries, or the news cycle (a Trump executive order? China? a big trend?).

In a recent preparation call to prepare a panel, and after an hour listening to the moderator distributing questions, she asked ‘ok, do you have any comment?’. Everybody was about to hang up. I said ‘well, we discussed many topics that are quite well known to this audience, what is it exactly we bring that is new or interesting?’.

Un ange passe

I felt a bit awkward saying this, but I thought it was for everyone’s benefit. Eventually, we had another round of discussion, then more discussion took place by email.

Eventually, the panel couldn’t cover all, and we also covered side topics, but I believe it paid off. Always think about what the audience will get out of the panel.

02/ Give context

Your panelists are experts, and maybe you are too. But many in the audience are not. Giving some context helps everyone start from a common base. Keep it short.

03/ Summarize ideas

After a speaker has made a point, it’s sometimes useful to reformulate it in simpler terms to clarify it (if you feel you can make it clearer).

04/ Ask candid questions

Your job is not to appear like a know-it-all, but to help the speakers get their best ideas understood.

  • If a term needs to be defined, or if a topic needs more details simply ask your panelists rather than try to know everything. Agreeing on a definition, or showing definitions vary are both useful. It also encourages the audience to ask more questions later, since you already asked candid ones.
  • Some questions can be a bit edgy or pushy if they are genuinely relevant (not just to stir up controversy of create some buzz)— just make sure you tell panelists that they don’t have to answer if they prefer not to. You will lose their trust (and respect) if you play ‘gotcha’.

05/ Make candid comments

I often use whatever comes to my mind in the context of the discussion, with only little filtering. Part of it can be prepared in advance based on your immediate thoughts on the topic.

For example, I was recently moderating a panel on real estate investment (not my field — I was helping a friend), and I mentioned how I picked my apartment (next to the gym) and why I did a health check (the event was talking about how to rate the quality of real estate, I made a comparison that having data and a baseline is useful for long-term health).

Those personal touches have a few subtle benefits:

  • They show you’re quite laid back. Which brings a more relaxed atmosphere to the discussion.
  • They show to panelists that it’s ok to share personal stories or ideas, and that panelists can share their thought process or doubts too.

06/ Interrupt graciously

Often, nothing is more annoying than a panelist going into a long monologue, even if it’s on-topic. The audience and other panelists are often waiting anxiously for the moderator to find a way to stop it. You’re the only one with the authority to do it. So do your job!

One way I found is to pick something that was just said and ask another panelist for comment. Here again, it also educates the audience that you *will* interrupt them too if they drone on during Q&A as well.

If they go too much off-track, just remind them gently of the topic.

07/ Encourage panelists to comment on each other

It’s a classic, but that’s what makes a good panel too. For this, it’s good to have researched so you can ask extra comments from specific speakers, otherwise just pay attention to their desire to comment.

08/ Use the audience intelligently

Just like you have to manage your panelists, you have to manage the audience.

During the panel, you can engage them with simple questions where they have to raise their hand (what makes a good question would be the topic of another post).

Then if you do Q&A be extra careful that they don’t turn into long questions, mere statements, or unclear rambles.

  • Prepare your audience: tell the audience from the start if there will be Q&A. Smart people will have showed up with questions, or prepare some as the panel goes on. Remind them again a few minutes before Q&A that they can start thinking about questions.
  • Avoid long questions, statements and rambles: when you open Q&A tell the audience that they have to keep their questions short, and have a question mark at the end. Once you stated the rules (and already illustrated during the panel you can’t be bossed around too much), then it’s your call to apply them depending on the situation. Sometimes a comment from someone knowledgeable is worth hearing (for instance, I had an M&A exec from Apple in the audience once). The collective brains of your audience is likely smarter than your panel!

Bonus: Don’t just sit randomly

Some panels call everyone and they pick random seats, including the moderator. It’s bad.

  • The moderator should be on one end, and able to always see everyone.
  • Ideally, panelists should sit in the same order as in the program, or even better, in the same order as a slide projected with their photo and name.

Sitting in the same order as a slide projected helps everyone follow the discussion better.

It helps you and the audience understand who said what. If they’re not sitting in the right order, make people move. It will also help during Q&A time.

As for the slide, your job is to ensure this panel is as great as possible so ask organizers beforehand and prepare it if you have to!

Should you prepare with panelists or not?

Generally I don’t do prep calls. Too much hassle with agenda and timezones.

What I do is:

  • Ask the organizer for an intro email to everyone
  • Send an email with a short list of topics to think about to everyone — generally 4 to 6 topics — and invite panelists to comment, or tell me if they have some key messages they want to get across.

I don’t necessarily use those questions verbatim during the panel. They are just there to clarify the topic and define a rough frame.

Beyond helping people organize, this email has the benefit of setting the tone as well. In the email I generally:

  • Introduce a bit my relevant experiences or background (to establish some credibility with the panelists)
  • Put something a bit personal about how I relate to the topic,
  • Set a friendly tone, which helps establish some rapport and gives hints at the kind of atmosphere I want to create during the panel. I want everyone to have a good time!

On the day of the event, I also arrange to meet a little before the panel so that we all see face-to-face, and ask again if they have key messages.

During the panel, I generally have my phone with some quick notes on Google Keep that I glance at on occasion. My biggest frustration is generally that I am so focused on avoiding monologues, encouraging interactions and thinking about the next question that I often forget what was said!

After the panel

These days I record my own videos with a little tripod to watch them later on. This way I figure out what was said and what could be improved. I also sometimes write summaries or transcripts to give the content more mileage.

The offline audience is the studio audience, and many events don’t have large online audiences and don’t think about the marketing of it once it’s online. I have thousands of contacts.

The offline audience is the studio audience. Don’t forget promoting the content online.

What if your moderator sucks?

There are many ways to suck.

Among them:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of control
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of flexibility

As a panelist, it’s a difficult situation. Generally there are warning signs.

Lack of knowledge: If it’s clear early on, and your moderator is lazy (or doesn’t ask), send a quick summary by email of how you see the topic and its main issues. Make them look smart by feeding them great questions ;)

Lack of control/energy/flexibility: hard! As a panelist that’s where you have the least authority. Interrupt graciously by asking someone else to comment. It will probably confuse the over-speaker ;) Generally you’ll be forgiven if you don’t try to steal other people’s speaking time for yourself.

I find annoying when moderators:

  • believe they have to ask all the questions,
  • don’t let me make my key points,
  • don’t let me comment on what other people say.

What I do is gesture to the moderator to get permission to comment, and try to keep it short.

If I feel the panel lacks interaction or is not touching upon the points I’m interested in, I will also ask questions to other speakers. I think my position as a speaker and expert legitimizes this, and provides value to the other speakers and the audience.

Eventually, if the cost of having a better panel for the audience is to make the moderator angry, I am ok with it. I’d rather displease one actively than many passively. I think it’s the right thing to do.

Organizers: how to pick a moderator

I truly encourage organizers to think more deeply about moderators.

I’ve organized dozens of events and invited well over 100 speakers. I know it’s already hard to get them.

Often, moderators are but an afterthought. Some events fall back on journalists with brand names, who might or might not be good moderators or interviewers.

I’d like to offer a quick rule of thumb to find them, but I’m afraid I don’t really have a list or know of a good resource. No magic bullet, sorry! So just take note in other events, and build up your list.

Good MCs are rare too. Some will waste people’s time trying to make long intros, instead of just getting out of the way if they don’t have better things to say.

We live in an era where there are many interesting people. The key is now filtering and getting the meat. I believe people able to do that will be more and more recognized.

Good moderators are good filters and get the meat

In fact, maybe good moderators should get paid even if panelists don’t. The logic is that moderators are not in the right position to ‘sell’ anything so they don’t benefit as much, but can actually create a lot of value.

Finally, as this article might sound like a call to ask me to moderate, let me state it clearly: I often enjoy moderating, but it’s much more work and it doesn’t help my company as much as if I speak. As a speaker, I can help damage-control and improve your panel, though ;) also, I am generally happy to moderate if I also speak in another session. It also depends on topics. And generally you don’t have to pay me ;) — often covering flights & hotel will do (it’s case by case).

Some examples

For some examples of panels:

  • The State of Industrial IoT. The moderator arrived late! Can you figure out when, and his style?
  • The Road Toward Wellbeing. There was no moderator: another panelist dropped out, and I insisted I didn’t want to just interview the remaining one. So it’s just a discussion between me and a startup founder. I think we covered quite a lot of interesting points and we had a good time. Can you see what guided the discussion?

Voila! I hope this helps :)

Comments and tips are welcome at ben@hax.co.

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SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, RebelBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dLab) & our startups.

Benjamin Joffe

Written by

Partner @ HAX & SOSV — Investors in 200+ Hardware Startups | Digital Naturalist | Keynote Speaker | Angel Investor | 18 years in Asia | Addicted to airports.

SOSV: Inspiration from Acceleration

Insights from The Accelerator VC—including our programs (HAX, IndieBio, RebelBio, Chinaccelerator, MOX, Food-X, dLab) & our startups.

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