Panel Moderation Ideas

Helen Spielman

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I will be moderating a 90-minute, three-panelist discussion for my professional organization. What are creative ways that I can structure this time to be most enriching for the audience?

— Rebecca Morgan

I’ve moderated quite a number of panels. I put some thoughts on this page.

— Bill Marvin

The best thing you can do is to NOT let people pose questions directly to the panel. It can easily allow an individual to hijack the conversation and turn into a discussions of specifics that will cause the rest of the audience to drift away. Instead, hand out 3x5 cards in the audience and ask them to write down their questions. Collect the cards as the panelists make their initial presentations and moderate the discussion from the floor with a hand-held mic or a lavaliere.

You’ll see common themes in the questions, so when it’s time for Q&A, YOU generalize the question and pose it to the panel. You’ll avoid any individual hijacking the floor, keep the whole audience engaged, and maintain control of the discussion. Have fun with it!

— Charlie Hawkins

Here are some ideas to ponder:

  • Instruct panelists to keep answers crisp, brief, and to-the-point — no exhortations, rabbit holes, or diversions.
  • Survey audience members in advance, either via email or live prior to the event. Ask what interests them about the topic. Seed these questions throughout.
  • Have a bunch of questions that you prepare in advance, and lead off with them. You may consider letting panelists know in advance if they might have to dig up some numbers, or do other research.
  • Throw in a couple of “thinking” questions, e.g., “what’s the hardest part of this project for you?” or “if you could change one thing about XYZ, what would it be?”
  • Create a mechanism for audience members to write questions on cards, and have someone collect them before and during the discussion and bring them to you. You can then sort and seed them the way you want to.
  • Be mindful of time, and allow each of the panelists a minute or so to wrap up.
  • Keep the focus on what the audience is interested in, not just what the panelists know.

— Brenda Avadian

Introduce the topic and what each panelist will bring to the topic and then let the audience know each will speak about 10–15 minutes (depending on the topic) so that the audience has about 45 minutes to ask questions.

If the audience questions skew to one panelist, interject your own question now and then in order to redirect and ensure all panelists have an (almost) equal opportunity to present.

— Alfred Poor

One of my favorite and most effective techniques — especially for larger audiences — is to print “question cards” in advance. Each audience member gets one as they walk in (or they are included in their packet, or placed on their seat, or whatever).

As the panel discussion goes on, I have runners go up and down the aisles to collect the questions from the audience. The runners bring them to me at the edge of the stage, and I review them while the panelists are talking (multi-tasking!). Then I can use the questions from the audience during and at the end of the panelist remarks. Here are some advantages of this approach:

  1. It solves the microphone problem, where people have to scurry around to pass out wireless mikes, or where you get long lines in the aisles as people stand waiting for their turn at the mic.
  2. It eliminates the “speech question,” where an audience member goes on and on and may never reach their question. When they monopolize everyone’s time like this, it is generally not good for the program, and often sucks all the energy out of the room.
  3. I get to scan the cards and look for common themes, so that I can ask the questions that are on the minds of the most audience members. You avoid the “What should I feed my left-handed French purple squirrel?” type of question that is too specific to just one individual’s situation.
  4. I maintain control of the questions, and I can ask a variety so that I make sure that every panelist gets a chance to be involved in answering the audience questions. (It’s important to make sure that one panelist doesn’t dominate the conversation.)
  5. And of course, I include my contact information on the question cards. Most people aren’t going to have questions and they can keep their card, so it’s like getting a free shot to hand out my business card to everyone in the audience!

For a high-tech version of this technique, have audience members Tweet their questions with a specific hashtag, or send a text to your phone. You can also use a system such as CrowdMics ( to achieve a similar effect.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions