I heard one of education’s smartest, if most sardonic, leaders remark the other day that in this field when you are put out to pasture you become a moderator of panels. Let’s hope not, along with a bunch of folks I respect I get asked to moderate all the time these days! But to me it’s not a chore, in addition to being on a panel or giving a talk, moderating is something I like to do (who wouldn’t, you get to ask questions) and I aim for outcomes like this or like this.  As a moderator my basic idea is that I don’t want to subject an audience to a panel I wouldn’t want to sit through myself – and everyone has sat through too many like that.

Talking with a colleague the other day about moderating he suggested writing a few things down. So for a Friday here are a few “rules” I’ve come up with to guide me:

  1. Being a moderator is like being a bartender.  Any fool can pour something in a glass, but a good bartender creates a drink with cohesion and flavor. In other words, when you’re leading a panel anyone can let people each talk for 15 minutes and then call on people in the audience. That’s phoning it in and why get on an airplane to go do that? When you just go through the motions you’re not a moderator, you’re a trained seal or monkey.  Instead, lead a conversation among the panelists and then between them, the audience, and each other.
  2. But don’t dominate that conversation. You’re there to facilitate not to talk. If you’re asked to moderate on a topic that you have such strong views on that you’ll be unable to keep yourself from jumping in all the time or ask good questions of both sides, then ask to be panelist instead. It’s OK to inject information or context or even jump in from time to time, but remember your role.
  3. Presentations by panelists are necessary when introducing new information (for instance a new study or new data) or especially complicated information.  But on the typical panel what people would talk about during a presentation are items they could discuss in a conversation as well – and even call on specific slides if necessary to make a point.  So rather than giving everyone an allotted time to speak, ask them questions instead.  A conversation like that is more engaging for the audience and generally surfaces more issues than a canned talk. In most cases getting talked at for 50 minutes or an hour is deadly for an audience – you can deliver the same content in a more engaging way.  And by forcing people to engage rather than just delivering lines the audience can see who really has an A game and who just knows the talking points.
  4. Asking questions means you need to prepare some questions.  Good ones set the stage and then elicit different views and nuance (and if there are not genuinely different views among panelists, as is too often the case in our sector, then when why are you doing a panel anyway? Just move to Cuba, the weather is better.).  Do your homework beforehand, learn about the participants and their work, and think about a flow of questions to go from the broad to the specific. Skip the gotcha questions, the point isn’t to embarrass people, but do ask ones that reveal – one of my favorites is to ask people what the best counterarguments against their position is. What would a thoughtful critic say? You’d be amazed how often people struggle to present those they disagree with in terms that those people would recognize.  And don’t be afraid to veer off script.  If it’s a good conversation you probably won’t get to all of your questions, that’s OK.
  5. Let the panelists engage with each other to amplify or push back on various points.  A good conversation means letting people ask questions and disagree – encourage panelists to do that beforehand. But as the moderator don’t hesitate to curtail responses that are needlessly long, are basically filibusters, or go too far onto tangents. Your job is to keep the conversation moving.
  6. Listen, listen, and listen.  Follow up questions to clarify, amplify or dig deeper are key to a good conversation but you have to be an active listener to ask them. A skilled panelist will answer the question they want to answer, not necessarily the one you asked. It’s OK to push for an answer.  If the question is good or the issue important then the audience will thank you for it.
  7. When they audience comes in, don’t check out.  Q and A is great.  The audience will have their own angles on things or questions you didn’t think of.  But don’t go on autopilot at this point, keep listening and asking follow-up questions. And make sure to that questions are actually that, interrogative exercises. It’s disrespectful (and occasionally inhumane) to make an audience listen to speechifying, push for a question.
  8. Physical layout matters. I moderated a panel once where it turned out one participant was rolling their eyes at another.  I couldn’t see that from where I was sitting at the far end of a long dais and didn’t learn about it until afterwards. The best layout is chairs in a semi-circle rather than the more traditional people in a row behind a table format.  A riser helps so everyone can see but head table arrangements hinder conversation. Think Oprah: Relaxed, accessible and conversational.

So those are mine, what are yours?

One Reply to “Moderate!”

  1. These are good, especially because I have seen you practice what you preach. It will be helpful to those in the pasture and beyond.

    Another form of the “what woud the counter-arguments be?” is the question that asks two antagonists how they can help each other. I saw this done deftly by the guy who moderates the CT Forum when he moderated an otherwise predictable pro-Union/pro-Reform panel at Yale SOM conference a year or two ago. After the union rep said what the union’s priorities were, the moderator asked the reformer “those priorities (parent engagement, professionalism, etc) sound important – how can you help her succeed at achieving them?” And then the reverse. The two sides eventually found their footing and went back to the talking points, but for a moment they were in the revealing posture of pursuing shared goals.

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