The moderator is basically the boss of the panel -- the chair of the session.
This role varies a lot depending on how the panel varies. For more presentation style panels, it can be redundant -- but it rarely hurts.
All program items that include a Guest of Honor Speaking, should have a moderator. (The Guest Liaison is a good standing choice.)
The role can vary from interviewing the panelists, to acting as crowd control. Generally though, the moderator takes the questions from the audience, clarifies them if required, and asks the panelists in turn to answer them. Making sure no one goes over time, and keeping the discussion moving.
They normally introduce the panelist at the start, and often read out the panel description from the program books to get things started. They make sure everyone is out of the room before the next panel starts.
Be a competent person and adapt to the situation -- this is the basis being a good moderator. The refined skills include a whole lot of people management, diplomacy, assertiveness, de-escalation, and presence.
Roles of a Moderator
A moderator has many roles, and which takes the focus depends on the nature of what is being moderated.
- Make sure the audience and the panellists are settled.
- Set the tone of the presentation.
- Introduce the panelists, and the topic at the beginning.
- It can be good to read the blurb from the program book.
- While the moderator is the leader, they are not the most important person on the panel.
- The moderator bridges the gap between the audience and the panelists.
- On this basis, it can help that if the panel is all sitting behind a table (shielding/separating them), the moderator sits off to one-side next to the panelists but with nothing between them and the audience.
- Get the audience to raise their hands.
- If questions are to be held until question time, tell the audience.
- It can help to restate the question. Particularly if the asker started to go off-track.
- The audience is NOT a panelist
- Don’t let audience members get away with rants disguised as questions.
- But sometimes sharing from the audience is good.
- The moderator controls the panel.
- Don’t let the anyone hog the spotlight.
- Questions don’t have to be posted to each panelist in turn (though that is usual).
- Some back and forth is good.
- Not everyone needs to answer every question.
- But don’t let anyone be rude.
- Pens (and other wand-like objects): Anything that extends your arm (even a pointed finger) gives the moderator an air of authority.
- Use a large pen to point to who is to speak eg: "OK, so what do you think, Bill?" (Point to Bill)
- This works both for directing the panelists and for directing the audience.
- If the panel is question driven.
- Have some questions ready in-case the audience gets quiet.
- But don’t ask your questions at the cost of the audience's.
- Have these written on paper in advance.
NOT a panelist
- You (the moderator) may be an expert; or at least well opinioned on the topic.
- Hold in your questions and arguments till the panel is over.
- As moderator we do not want your opinion.
- We want interesting questions, so we can hear the panellists' opinions.
A large amount of unordered unofficial advice for moderators
This list was collected from a long thread on the Swancon Facebook group.
- Thick padding, a sword & shield, plus a clear escape route - that usually helps.
- Stay calm. Do some research on your fellow panellists in advance so you have an idea what they may be able to contribute. Prepare some topic-related questions/talking points. Make sure no panellist hogs the mike to the detriment of the others. But if one of them is being really interesting and on-topic don't cut them off too soon. Keep it courteous (both you and your panellists.) In question time, make sure your audience members don't deliver lectures or rants on their pet topics - question time is for questions and they should be relevant to the panel topic.
- Simple to say but harder to do:
- Make sure you are in control of the panelist. Do not let them go over their time and make sure all of them gets a chance to speak.
- Make sure the panel members talk to the audience rather than to themselves.
- Make sure there is audience interaction/participation.
- Prepare some questions in case one or more panelists have nothing to say.
- Also, most panellists prefer responding to questions from the moderator rather than being given 5-10 minutes each to hold forth on the topic. Group discussion is far more interesting than talking heads.
Have questions you can ask the panelists about the topic if the talk dries up or gets sidetracked.
- Get together with copanellists before the panel. Discuss what you want to talk about. Write down a loose structure so you can refer to it. Keep your smartphone on the table so you can subtly check the time as you go.
- Also decide before you start if you want to hold off comments and discussions from the audience until towards the end, and tell the audience when you start. If someone from the crowd pipes up early, remind them of what you told them. If a second person does it, remind them again very firmly.
- Try to keep an eye on who on the panel is talking more or less and if someone is getting cut off or not speaking try to direct some questions to them specifically.
- The bare minimum for me is: write down some points to think about, and share it with your copanelists, even if just over email. Also, decide what things you REALLY want to talk about and what can just be used to fill in time if you run out of stuff to say.
- Oh and be prepared to be flexible, especially if you have multiple copanelists. A good but somewhat off topic panel the panelists have lots to say about and audience enjoys is better than a mediocre but on topic one. But sometimes you have to firmly bring things back on topic when people are just rambling self indulgently.
- I'd always go for questions at the end. Don't let one person dominate the questions. If they start to argue, cut them off with a firm but polite, 'thanks for that, but we need to give others a chance.' If panellists haven't prepared much beforehand, make sure that you have questions to prompt them. Don't let one panel member take over. If you have a guest of honour on the panel, give them preference.
- Write more notes than you will need, consider visual props - can be books, figures (toys), t shirts, hats (fez for Doctor Who), or powerpoint for photos or more complicated presentation. I have tried interpretive dance but that did not work for me grin emoticon Talk to your co-panellists beforehand, even if only to say hello, my name is... Keep hydrated, and have fun smile emoticon
- Remember that, even if you are experienced (even if you are more experienced than the panelists). Its not your place to argue with them -- you can totally do that, but hold it in until after the panel.
- If you're using a computer print out your notes on paper as well, so you can keep going while the AV guy vainly tries to get your computer to connect to the projector etc. (Also: Meet The AV Guy in advance of your panel.)
- Remember 1 hour panels are actually 45-55 minutes. End it at 45 minutes if things are going slow -- that is fine, some topics have that much interesting content and then you are done.
- 50 minutes is really the "soft" end point. Because people from the next panel will be trying to enter the room at the 55 minute mark -- to get settled, to set up powerpoints etc. So don't be there at 55 minutes -- that is the "hard" end point.
- Some people are on back to back panels, so they do need that 5-15 minute break. Preferably the 10-15 end of it.
- Definitely endorse the hard copy version of notes!
- Prepare ahead of time, talk with other panellists ahead of time. Suggest prior reading materials if there's anything relevant. Preflight AV and have a printed backup. Check panel and other panelists location ahead of time. Carry a big stick.
- Make sure that panelists respect each other. Saying "You're wrong" and claiming superior knowledge or pulling rank is not constructive but saying "I disagree" or "there's another facet to this topic" can enhance discussion.
- Make sure panelists respect each other's speaking time. I was on a panel where two other panelists kept interrupting me, even during my 5 minute prepared speech. I became stressed and felt that being on that panel was a waste of my time. The hours I put into preparation were definitely wasted.
- Make sure you share the airspace (speaking time). I was on a panel where the moderator kept the conversation focused on one other panelist so it was really a chat between two guys who pretty much kept their backs to the women. It was insulting and patronising.
- Make sure that the panel includes diverse points of view or you'll have a choir not a dynamic discussion.
- Make sure the topic allows for open-ended discussion and, when you ask questions or pose jumping-off comments, you phrase your comments to allow wide-ranging discussion. Avoid questions with "yes" or "no" answers.
- Don't be afraid of silence. Silence helps people dig deeper before responding and stimulates discussion.
- Don't feel you have to be in control of the discussion.
- On the other hand, don't allow panelists to insult each other or members of the audience.
- Relax and make it like an informative chat. I find people respond well like that. But I am an attention seeker type so I took to it pretty naturally.
- As moderator we do not want your opinion. We want interesting questions so we can hear the panelists' opinions.
Moderating the Moderators Panel
Moderating the moderators is a traditional panel/training session ran at Swancons (and almost certainly other conventions). It may be held before, or after the opening ceremony.