A good panel discussion will adhere to these 4 principles.
The Absolute: Have A Moderator
Whether you call it a Moderator, M.C., Host, or any other title, there’s no way around it, you need one.
This person guides the speakers, coaxes them through tough territory, and reigns them back in when they’ve gone out on a ramble and need to come back to the table. Furthermore, the best events involve the moderator from the invitation stage all the way through to the post-event correspondence, making the moderator the familiar and friendly face of the event.
With that being said, it should be obvious that the moderator him or herself must be good. Don’t assign the company president, or department manager as a moderator just because of who they are. Choose a moderator who is confident, comfortable, intuitive, and most importantly: likable.
Let It Be Known: Review the Agenda and State the Objectives
After a quick self introduction, the moderator should review the event agenda, indicate exactly what the objectives are, and how they will be accomplished. If there will be a question and answer period, let the audience know that ahead of time so they can prepare, and more importantly resist the urge to interrupt.
The Golden Rule: Keep it Short and Make a Point
When there are multiple people involved in a discussion, everyone has the right to speak, but no one should hog the mic. It’s rude and uncomfortable for the other people in the discussion and you’ll lose the interest of the audience quickly when the same person keeps talking.
To prevent speaker takeover during a discussion, the rules must be reviewed with the audience, and before the discussion actually begins. The moderator should remind the speakers of the recommended time frame for their answers, and explain that keeping their answers short and to the point is a courtesy to the other speakers and the audience, and will allow for the event to reach their stated objectives.
By All Means: The Moderator Should Interrupt When Necessary
Speakers can get long-winded, distracted, and in some instances I’ve witnessed: hostile and condescending towards other speakers or the audience members themselves.
Many times, speakers just get excited and their sentiment comes out in a stream of consciousness that doesn’t answer the question, leaving the audience unsatisfied and frustrated at a lack of outcome.
This is where the given authority of a moderator proves its necessity. The moderator can, and should, swoop in and gently remind the speaker of the question at hand, the recommended speaking time, cue the speaker to reach a point, or when necessary, stop a speaker completely. Of course, a moderator should only intervene when a speaker becomes overly-aggressive, offensive, or is unfairly taking time away from the other speakers.
"Simply stated, a moderator should create and sustain a comfortable environment for speakers and audience members."
The best discussions involve passion, emotion, and a healthy dose of conflicting viewpoints, and these can all exist and thrive within a fair and open forum, but sometimes that forum may need a little moderation for the sake of everyone involved.
One of my favorite event production resources is The Event Manager Blog (www.eventmanagerblog.com). I subscribe to their email newsletter and it’s always full of great info for all forms of event production.
Additional tips received from readers:
“Set expectations with the panelists, let them know how you want the panel to go, and remind them the moderator is guiding them through this experience.
Also, the moderator should prepare ahead of time: research the panelists, prepare questions (preferably more than you need in case the audience does not ask questions), and be ready to adjust your questions on the fly during the panel.” – Matthew Fox