Conference moderator

Expert Guide: Moderating Conferences and Panel Discussions

Just as there are few ‘naturals’ when it comes to media interviewees, there are few ‘naturals’ when it comes to moderating conferences and panel discussions. The good ones you see are the ones who have practiced – a lot!

As a moderator or conference chair, your job is to make the speakers look good and connect the audience to the subject matter. Here’s how.

Preparation Is Key

Try to find out as much as possible about who is in the audience and why they are there. Understand from the organisers what they want from you (to inform? educate? motivate? entertain?) and the tone you should adopt (challenging? inspirational? authoritative?).

Check the lay-out of the room (will half the room have their backs to you because they’re seated at round tables?; will there be audio-visual equipment or will you be projecting your voice?); speak to the presenters beforehand to gather information about them and their talk; double-check job titles and pronunciation of their names. All this will allow you to plan your approach and give you confidence in the situation before you walk in.

Engaging The Audience

Your performance sets the tone. Clear, positive thought lies at the root of success in communication. The best communicators have high levels of energy and focus.

Once emotionally connected to you, an audience will listen to you. So maybe start with a short, amusing story or anecdote, or play to the audience’s expectations about you or your organisation. Audiences also tend to like openings that contain factoids or challenges.

Avoid long formal introductions to speakers, regurgitating their biography. You want to do your bit for the speaker by getting the audience alert and engaged and it will make them more likely to ask questions at the Q&A. Talk to the speaker beforehand and ask for an interesting titbit about themselves that the audience might not know. Tell the audience what to expect from the presentation or session (again, speak to the presenter beforehand). Keep your language active as opposed to passive; use personal pronouns (I, we, you) to help build rapport with the audience.

Handling Q&A Sessions

People relate better to people than ‘things’ so talk in human rather than technical terms. Ask interesting questions e.g. instead of “how did you do that”, ask “what was the best / worst part of doing that?”.

Short questions are better unless you’re trying to kill time when longer questions will usually elicit longer answers from the speaker as they address each of your points. Identify some questions of your own (ask the speaker beforehand what they would you like you to ask as a first question if nobody immediately puts up their hand).

If the question is garbled or irrelevant, you might want tactfully to paraphrase the question to focus the audience on what you / the speaker want to talk about.

Accentuate differences of opinion between panellists (unaggressively of course) – it makes it interesting for the audience. To keep a dialogue going, ask supplementary questions – “can you give us an example”. Throw in challenges and possibly red herrings (e.g. “wouldn’t Greenpeace disagree with you?”); use your own experience to engage the audience or give the speaker something to play off e.g. “when I was studying to be a chemical engineer I spent a whole year before I realised that the module I had chosen wasn’t going to help me get a job – did you ever worry that your degree might not help you?”.

If questions aren’t flowing from the audience, there’s a limit to how long you can string things out. It is embarrassing for the panellist/ presenter that nobody beyond the moderator wants to know more. So wrap up by asking them ‘a final big picture question’ e.g. “before I let you go, tell us how you see things in 5 years’ time” or “what one thing do you think people should take away from this event” – it also helps affirm for the speaker that they are an ‘expert’, justifying their presence to themselves and the audience.

Dealing With Nerves

Use a few discreet tensing and relaxing exercises. Try holding your breath for as long as you are able and then breathe out. Or take a number of slow, deep breaths which will give your brain the oxygen it needs while the slower pace will trick your body into believing you are calmer

Take a sip of water if your mouth is beginning to dry.

Imagine that you are delivering your presentation to an audience that is interested, enthused, smiling, and reacting positively. Cement this positive image in your mind and recall it right before you are ready to go on.

Smile – it improves the timbre of your voice and is a natural relaxant that sends positive chemicals through your body.

Just before you start speaking, count down under your breath “3-2-1” progressively lowering your tone, and then start speaking. This will avoid you starting with a squeak!


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