The prospect of moderating a panel may seem daunting, but with preparation you can deliver an informative and entertaining discussion. Below are some top tips on getting the best from your panel. Most of this advice applies just as well when interviewing one guest, as three or four.
- Research the subject and the panellists. Pick out an interesting or relevant fact about each panel member that you can bring into the discussion. If you’re not sure what the panel description is about, contact the organisers for more information.
- Contact the panellists in advance (ideally 2-3 weeks). Ask for a mini-biography, and offer suggestions of the type of questions you are likely to ask. Don’t be too prescriptive in this, otherwise your panel will be looking for those specific questions and the conversation won’t flow naturally. In other words, say something along the lines of ‘I’d like to discuss genre, setting and the inspiration for your book,’ rather than present a numbered list of questions. It’s a good idea to ask your guest if there’s anything they’d particularly like to discuss, or even anything they would like to hear about from one of the other panellists. Don’t get too bogged down in this, you want to keep the conversation fresh on the day.
- Prepare questions to get the most out of the topic. Have more questions than you think you’ll need – the conversation is bound to take a few twists and turns.
- If you can, arrange to meet the guests before the discussion and spend a few minutes making sure everyone is OK.
- If a microphone is provided, use it and encourage your participants to do so as well.
- When the session begins, let the audience know when they will have a chance to ask questions. It is easier to manage the timing of a panel when you allocate time for Q&A at the end, rather than accepting questions throughout.
- Introductions: before you ask your first question, introduce your guests, using the mini-biographies they provided. Draw out their expertise in the subject, any awards they have received, and the title of their latest book.
- Ensure all your panellists have the same opportunities to speak. Some guests can start to dominate the conversation. When this happens, direct a question to another guest. If it happens too often, you may need to suggest continuing that particular thread over a drink in the bar, as there is so much more of this fascinating topic to cover in the short time of the panel discussion.
- Don’t allow the conversation to stray off topic. Remember you have an audience who has come to hear the discussion of the advertised topic. Once again, you can always suggest the guest might like to continue their thread in the bar later.
- The Q&A: scan the whole room for hands going up. Like a bartender, you need to make sure nobody’s kept waiting.
- Sometimes an audience takes a while to warm to the task, if you don’t get questions right away, ask another question yourself, then try again. Saying things like ‘we’ve just got time for a couple of questions,’ often galvanises the audience into action.
- Repeat audience questions back, to ensure the whole room hears.
- Don’t allow one audience member to hog the floor.
- Draw the session to a close by thanking the panel and inviting applause from the audience.
- Timing: stick to the advertised duration and don’t encroach on the next session’s time. It helps the event run smoothly. Your audience will also be expecting you to keep to the timetable, they may have a train/bus to catch, or their parking is due to expire. If you allow the session to overrun, the audience is likely to fidget, or even leave (clunking as they go).