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If you’re in the business long enough it will happen. In fact, it’s inevitable. At some point you will be asked to be part of a panel discussion for a tasting and/or seminar. If you do enough of these panel discussions, Darwin’s law on natural selection states that you will be chosen to moderate one of them. You may think that orchestrating one of these hopefully profound summits between august industry minds should be easy to pull off. You would be wrong. Having been a part of dozens of such panels over the years I have experienced things going wrong in every possible way. As an industry service, here are guidelines for moderating and being part of a panel discussion.

Moderator: Rules of Engagement

The session is NOT about you. You are there to facilitate the presentation and keep it going. Period.

Spend no more than five minutes talking about your background or experience UNLESS it profoundly pertains to the topic of the seminar—in which case you should be on the panel and not the moderator.

If you go on about how cool and great you are you’ll run the risk of pissing off the panelists and probably irritate the audience as well. If you must insist on telling people how great you are don’t lead panels, write a book. Or contact Oprah’s people.

Thank the audience for being there. Everyone is busier than ever and they’ve chosen to spend part of their day by listening to you and the panelists.

Tell attendees to turn their cell phones off or risk being tased by the large somewhat frightening man lurking at the entrance door (just kidding. Or not).

Get the OK from panelists for attendees recording the presentation—BEFORE the presentation starts. Some people are very picky about this. No flash photography during the session. It may cause seizures.

Above all, your set up and introductions should be no longer than five minutes.

Memorize the names of the panelists before game day. Forget the name of one of your panelists during the introduction and the audience will think you’re a complete moron—as well they should. I’ve been there before.

Once you finish the introductions GET OUT OF THE WAY. Let the panelists do the heavy lifting. The session is about their expertise—not yours. 

Make sure the attendees understand the point, relevance, and scope of the topic being presented before game day. It’s your job to help them connect the dots.

Keep the flow of the presentation going and watch the timing of the panelists.

To that end, literally keep a timer in hand (your phone) and agree beforehand on some signals to let your panelists when their time is up—as in before it’s up!

Threaten the panelists if they go overtime. Just kidding. Give them a high sign and be able to gracefully interrupt them if necessary by acknowledging their last thought and tying it to the general theme of the session.

Remind the audience between each speaker how what was just said relates to the overall theme of the session. Connect the dots!

Facilitate Q&A by the attendees. It’s critical that you manage the overall timing of the session so that there’s at least 10 minutes left at the end for any questions.

Keep attendee questions relevant and on track (good luck with that).

Repeat every attendee question so the entire group can hear the question.  Adjust mangled grammar if necessary.

Watch out for the one guy in the audience who always wants to ask a million questions and who is completely incapable of asking a short much less intelligent question. It’s usually the same guy who knows just enough about the topic to be dangerous. 

If said question guy asks too many questions, thank him and suggest that for the sake of keeping the seminar on track and on time he should stay for a few minutes after the end so all his questions can be answered. Hopefully he’s not a stalker or creepy bus driver-type. That’s why we have event security, as in the large frightening man lurking near the entrance door.

Always compliment an attendee asking the question by saying something along the lines, “That’s a good/great question,” even if the question makes no sense at all. If necessary, rephrase the question so it can easily be understood.

In your closing remarks thank the panelists for their contributions to the session and recap the overall theme.

Finally, as the moderator, remember that you are the Bondo that makes everything smooth, polished, and efficient. It’s your job to make the panelists look good, in some cases in spite of themselves. That means engaging them in questions if you think they just made a great point but could add more info that would enhance the presentation.

Think of it as batting practice where you’re tossing softballs to your panelists so they can hit them out of the park. Again, your job is to make them look good. 


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Panelists: Rules of Engagement

Stick to the topic and avoid meaningless tangents at all costs.

Remain within your allotted time! That means practicing your part of the session while actually looking at a timer.

If possible, try to include other panelist’s views/opinions as a part of what you’re saying—even if you disagree. If you disagree be professional about itand respectful.

Keep swearing and any mention of overt sexual, religious, or political content completely OUT of the discussion. That includes any inappropriate remarks about small rodents.

Tell stories. People love stories. But make sure your story is short and relevant to the theme of the session.

Engage the attendees as much as possible. Make eye contact and try to connect with them.

If using PowerPoint–-and I am extremely guilty on this one—limit your presentation to two slides for every minute of your presentation.

There’s an exception to this rule (thankfully for me): if each slide contains a single image, word or a phrase of less than 10 words. Remember that attendees need at least 10-15 seconds to process any of the above. 

Avoid using complex graphs or charts as part of your presentation. Rule: if you look at a chart/graph you want to use in your presentation from 25 feet away or beyond and it makes you squint, DON’T USE IT.  If you can’t make sense of it your audience won’t be able to either.

Avoid saying that a certain demographic or group within your industry is stupid or that you’re the only individual within your profession that really knows what’s going on. If you insist on doing so, you will not only segregate yourself from the rest of your industry (as in the source of your income) but you will most certainly insult some of the attendees. At the very least they will associate you with Dr. Evil. And they should.

If you must insist on criticizing your industry or certain individuals/factions within it use indirect communication to do so, as in the pronoun IT vs. HE/SHE/THEY.

Use nomilizations sparingly (as in a verb that you’ve somehow made into a noun), as in no more than one per sentence or you will put the audience in a trance. Politicians are masters at this.

If you tell a joke make sure it’s funny and related to the topic. By all means test it out beforehand. There is nothing worse than bombing a joke in front of a live audience when you’re not even a comedian–even if you think you are.

Remember the attendees are there to learn a bit about your topic and maybe even to get a question answered. Regardless, they’ve chosen to spend an hour or so of their time experiencing enlightened discourse—hopefully yours.

Above all, be excited about your presentation. Have a good time with it and with the other panelists. You’ll be glad you did. So will everyone else.