Panels tend to be a refuge for the lazy. That’s why they’re painful for audiences to sit through. It’s true of both traditional in-person conferences and emerging online panels, like the social audio pioneered by Clubhouse and video summits done by virtual conferences.
To understand the problem with panels, let’s look at a conference I spoke at. As I waited in the green room for my turn on stage, I watched the conference organizer introduce a moderator to his panelists moments before they were to go on stage. The moderator laughed as he told his panelists, “I prefer leading panels to giving presentations because I hate the work of putting slides together.” The panelists nodded in agreement. They masked their laziness as a hack, congratulating themselves for getting attention by being on stage, without doing any work.
On stage, the moderator sat limply as he tossed softball questions, like, “Could you tell us about yourself?” Even when they talked for too long or were too self-promotional, he let them go on. Many moderators blame their panelists for not knowing how to give good answers instead of taking responsibility as the leaders of the conversation.
With a bit of effort, you can make your panels engaging and useful. Moderating a panel well is similar to leading an interview. The work is multiplied by the number of panelists you have, but so are the benefits. To do it right and stand out in a crowd of mediocrity, you need to use all the usual tools of a good interviewer. Let’s break that down.
Before the event, read every panelist’s bio and rewrite it in a way that shows your audience why they should care. Don’t let panelists introduce themselves. In my experience, panelists who introduce themselves ramble. Sometimes they ramble because they don’t know how to concisely explain what they do to an audience of strangers. Sometimes it’s because they want to impress. Sometimes it’s because they’re just plain nervous in front of a new audience. Take charge from the start by introducing them in a compelling way.
I also recommend talking with each panelist before the day of the event. You don’t need to do a formal pre-interview, but ask them about their goals so you can build trust with them by showing you care about their interests. Then ask some of the questions you plan to ask at the event. Since panels tend to be more interesting when there’s some controversy, I like to ask panelists for opinions or stories that are likely to shock the audience. Make note of the questions they answer well. Finally, ask them to check the bio you’ve written for accuracy.
If you can’t get on calls with panelists, try to reproduce this work with online research. I was once asked to host a panel at the last minute and didn’t have time to talk to the panelists. I gave my producer the list of panelist names and questions I expected to ask. She researched while I flew to the event. When my flight landed, she put together a research doc that was 75% as good as what I would have gotten by talking to the panelists beforehand, which is miles ahead of what other moderators had.
On the day of the event, talk to audience members before the panel starts to learn how to make the conversation valuable to them. At live conferences, I start by walking over to attendees as they wait to get into the venue. I’ll explain that I’m leading a panel, and I want to understand what they hope to gain from the event. I continue to ask attendees questions wherever I run into them—in elevators, in lines for coffee, anywhere. For online events, I meet the audience in online groups that the organizers create, on Twitter, or even in the comments of the event’s invitation.
I also like to be the first person audience members meet when they walk into the room to watch my panel. I’ve never seen another moderator do this, but it’s a wonderful way to get to know attendees and understand how to make the event meaningful to them. Ask what they want the panelists to answer, what they want to learn, and what they worry won’t come out of the panel. Write down both their questions and their names. When you ask a panelist a question and mention the name of the attendee who suggested it, both your audience and the panelists will appreciate that you’ve done your homework.
For online panels, I like to log into the event early and try to reproduce those conversations with guests. Most online conference software allows moderators to chat with attendees before the event starts. Checking in on the audience’s goals and interests helps me calibrate my questions and shows them that my panel will take their needs into account.
When the event starts, before introducing the panelists, introduce the topic. You want the audience to know why they’re here. My favorite way to present the talk is by bringing up a problem and explaining how the panel will help to solve it. When I moderated a panel of photographers for an audience of food bloggers, I started by explaining that the audience told me good food photos were the top driver of new readers to their sites, but they struggled to get mouth-watering shots in their kitchens using their camera phones.
Regardless of whether the event is online or off, it’s the moderator’s responsibility to keep things moving and make sure every panelist has an opportunity to speak. So I gently interrupt panelists who go long, using the techniques I wrote about in the first part of this book. And I make a mental note of which panelist didn’t get enough time to speak, so I can specifically include them.
Most people treat panels as an easy way to get free publicity. Don’t fall into that trap. With a little preparation, you can transform your panel into the must-see event of the day.