I’ve been a professional event moderator for over 10 years and have now been involved in over 150 events. From large-scale corporate conferences, to intimate fireside conversations at fundraising dinners, I’ve hosted all manners of events. During this time, I’ve learnt so much about what makes an impactful conversation and honing the skill of moderating to get the best out of panelists – you can read my recommendations on LinkedIn here. Before we launch into some tips, I’d like to record to show that: *being a moderator is about so much more than just asking questions*. A good moderator will also:
- Create a warm and encouraging atmosphere for attendees
- Work with event organisers in the planning to create a high-impact event
- Summarise key ideas for the audience
- Pick-up on nuances of conversation
- Ask insightful questions
- Create rapport between the panelists
- Keep the audience engaged
- Give context around a topic
- Provide closing remarks and wrap the talk
Now, let’s get to the sauce. Here’s some tips on how to be a great moderator that I can share first-hand:
BEFORE THE EVENT
1. Prepare (but don’t over-prep the panelists)
Preparation is key with moderating events. I’m topic agnostic as a moderator – I’ve hosted panels on everything from soil regeneration to body confidence. Take your time to do your research and really understand the topic you’re hosting an event on – even if you’re not the one answering the questions, it’s still really important that you are up-to-date with information about this topic, recent developments, zeitgeist and different schools of thought.
In terms of preparing the panelists, I like to give them indications of the kind of questions I’ll be asking, but I’m always wary of over-preparing the panelists. You want the conversations to feel free-flowing and natural, and giving too much time and information to prepare with can actually do the event a disservice as it will feel like everyone has stock answers and feel they are following a script.
Instead, I’ll do a prep call in advance of the event with all the panelists and get some top-line thoughts from all of them on their take within the broader topic, and then develop questions from there.
2. Collaborate with events organisers
The way I see it, being a moderator is more than just a hired hand for the day. In fact, being involved in the planning stages and as panels come together has always benefited me as a moderator. I’ll often do a prep call with the organisers pre-event to find out more about their personal objectives for the event, so I can understand how to serve them best.
I like to find out why they are putting this event on, what the mission of the company is, how they’d like the audience to be involved and what key objectives they have for the event. Depending on whether the event is in-person or virtual, I’ll get clued up on any technical considerations, such as what platform they are using, and ask to do a tech run-through, so that on the day I only focus on the content itself and don’t have to worry about the tech.
Events are best when they are collaborative; and the more questions you can ask about the company’s overall goals for the event, the better. Helping to design the event will serve you really well in the future for building relationships with event organisers.
3. Understand the needs of the audience
Taking this a step further, getting clear on what the needs of the audience are will help make this event even more impactful.
Yes, people may have paid to hear this talk, but what are they really wanting to get out of it? Where are they in their lives right now? What are their pain points? Panels are about informing, educating and inspiring an audience – they are not simply a vehicle for promoting a particular company or entrepreneur – and I always want to bring the event back to relevancy and impact.
So seek clarity on what you’re trying to deliver the audience through attending this talk and keep relating the talk back to the ‘why’ of the audience.
AT THE EVENT
4. Set the scene
It’s always helpful to start a panel talk or fireside by setting the scene for the audience. In a few words, introduce the topic to the audience and it’s relevancy to the world right now. Providing context allows the audience to be present in the talk and get up to speed on the day’s talk. Signpost to what the audience will gain within the next 40-minutes and encourage participation by reminding them there will be an opportunity for questions at the end.
5. Let panelists introduce themselves (briefly)
I’m personally not a fan of reading out long scripted elements when participating in an event – and it’s very hard to do this without sounding like a robot. Not a great way to start. Instead, I always ask the panellists to introduce themselves – it’s much more informal and intimate, but I brief them in advance than the introduction should be no more than a minute or two. I avoid anything that feels too rehearsed with events and like things to feel nature and free-flowing.
3. Encourage inter-panelist dialogue
Again, in the spirit of free-flowing dialogue, I always like to encourage panelists to engage with each other – responding to comments, asking each other questions, some healthy rebuttal. It keeps things dynamic and interesting – I don’t like panels where you’re just going down the line with everyone answering the same questions in a set order, which always means by the last person, everything of note has already been said and it starts to feel repetitive.
So I’ll encourage panelists to interact with each other, and beyond that, I never expect all the panelists to answer the same question – there’s an art to questioning, whereby you know which questions to address directly to different panelists, and really knowing their areas of expertise. Don’t feel like everyone has to be answering the same thing – this gets dull!
5. Practice active listening
Listening is so much more than being quiet and nodding when someone is talking. Something I learnt from my ICF coaching qualification is the art of active listening – whereby you’re listening for more than just the words, but also more subtle things like change of tone, body language, the words they use.
It’s so important to listen intently during a panel to the speakers, and whilst it can be tempting to just follow a set list of questions, this always leads to a more flat conversation. So put down your notes and try to really tune in.
6. Go off-script
Again, following a script is never a good look. You want to go off-script and get a bit uncomfortable – ask the unexpected question, allow space for pause and reflection, repeat back a key idea that a panelist has shared. Moderating is about so much more than just asking a list of questions, but it’s about holding space and giving speakers the opportunity to really share their expertise and personal story.
9. Be the invisible hand
I’ve spent a lot of time at events and in time, my view of what a good moderator looks like has shifted. The way I see it, a great moderator is an ‘invisible hand’ – they are there, pulling everything together, guiding the talk and taking the audience members on a journey, but the spotlight is not on them. A good moderator will be able to hold the event without making it about themselves – the role is to be a guiding hand and create the best possible environment for the speakers to shine, without putting too much attention on themselves.
10. Involve the audience
Audience involvement is so important at events – and a great moderator will encourage audience participation throughout the event. This will vary from event to event, but may include; audience Q&A at the end, throughout the talk, raising hands or, if it’s a virtual event, using polls and quizzes. The moderator should keep the audience on their toes by asking for participation when they’re not expecting it, and should be able to see the signs when the audience is getting restless or bored, and find ways to bring. them back to the present moment. What makes a great moderator is this attention to detail that keeps talks stimulating and diverse.
AFTER THE EVENT
11. Remember to engage!
The work isn’t done the second you get off stage! Continuing to engage with the audience across social media platforms is a great way to boost the visibility of the event and raise its profile, which in turn raises yours. I use Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to share audience experience’s of the event and try to get feedback and testimonial in person where possible.
10. Do a post-event analysis with the organiser
To build relations with event organisers, a great moderator will seek to get feedback from the organisers and review the objectives set in advance of the event. Take on board any feedback from your presenting skills on stage and have a growth mindset – don’t be discouraged if not everything was perfect, events are often unexpected beats and you’ll grow through experience to be the best moderator possible.