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Tips for moderating a panel discussion successfully

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by Startacus Admin


Moderating a panel discussion? Jon Lam from Toastmasters International shares his tips on how to do just that with ease

photo-1629115928899-bd61fea564c5Have you ever attended a panel discussion? Perhaps one where experienced entrepreneurs discuss their experience of founding a company or how to handle a business problem?  The success of a panel discussion is driven by how it is chaired or moderated.  To raise your profile you might want to take opportunities that arise to moderate a panel, possibly at a conference or networking event.

If you take on this role what are the best ways to make sure all the speakers’ different perspectives are shared and that the audience feels curious and fully engaged?  Let me share some tips.

Don’t expect that everything will go to plan

As much as you may want your panel discussion to run without any hitches, there are simply too many uncontrollable variables that are not in your favour. These range from technical glitches to over-dominating panellists, so it’s best to prepare your mindset for a situation where you may have to improvise. In a panel discussion I once moderated, technical glitches caused a speaker to lose connection. This resulted in me having to improvise on the spot to keep up the momentum of the discussion.

One way to prepare for the unplanned is to enhance your impromptu speaking skills. Practising in a group is the best method to start with as you can simulate the feeling of speaking in front of an audience. You can do this with a group of friends or by seeking out public speaking groups such as a Toastmasters International club where you can practise talking about any topic without preparation. Alternatively, you can practise by giving yourself a random topic to talk about for a few minutes at home. This is also a good way to prepare for a situation where you are forced to improvise as a panel discussion moderator.

Prepare with the panellists 

The next step is to make sure that your panellists are aligned on the flow of the discussion. This can involve confirming the allotted time for the whole discussion and sharing your questions in advance with the panellists so they have ample time to prepare their answers.

photo-1619996204936-63cf8f23f456.Common occurrences in panel discussions are awkward silences or where a panellist goes completely off-topic. Both cases may frustrate audience members. 

One method to offset these risks is to assign each question to the specific panellist who can add the most value. This panellist will be your main speaker to answer the question, and then you can check if the other panellists also want to contribute to the answer. Doing this preparation can help you to avoid situations where panellists are caught off guard with a question they cannot answer or having them go off on a tangent in an attempt to answer. 

Make sure that everyone gets to talk

An important role of the moderator is to make the event feel like a discussion. If you see that one panellist is dominating the discussion or making a lengthy speech, it is crucial that you speak up. To do this you must listen to the discussion rather than focusing on your performance as a moderator. By doing this, you’ll be able to ask relevant follow-up questions to the panellists that have spoken less, thus also pushing the discussion forward. 

For those situations where you are faced with a dominating speaker, a good technique is to preface a question as a ‘lightning round’ or request a ‘one sentence’ answer if time is limited. 

Managing a Q&A 

After your panellists finish speaking, you may have questions from audience. Instead of having your audience shout out their questions, find a way (there are various apps etc. that can help here) to have questions sent to you throughout the whole panel discussion. This way you’ll have a wider selection of questions to pick from and can filter out any inappropriate questions. You’ll then be able to ask relevant and popular questions that will add value to the audience and provide them with a more insightful experience. 

photo-1564522365984-c08ed1f78893.A nightmare for all moderators is a situation where there are no questions at all from an unengaged audience. One method to mitigate this is to prepare your own set of questions. This way, you’ll be able to avoid the awkward silence as you wait for questions to come in. Furthermore, you can continue the momentum of the session with questions that your audience may find valuable but may not have thought of. 

End with a call-to-action   

What is the best way to finish a panel discussion? One good technique is to summarise briefly the key points that were covered and conclude with a call to action. A ‘call to action’ is an invitation to the audience to take a desired action. This can be for the audience to reach out to the panellists if they have any further questions, or to visit a website for more resources on the topic. This can help you prolong the engagement you have with the audience and give them a clear sense of what they can do with the insight gained from the discussion.

Practice makes perfect

It’s easy to sit in an audience and listen to panel discussions but it takes preparation to successfully moderate one. The preparation doesn’t have to start when you know you have a panel discussion coming up. It can begin right now, as you consistently hone your mindset and impromptu speaking skills in front of a group of people or even when you are alone. As the date of the upcoming panel discussion nears, focus on establishing a clear flow and order on how the discussion will run with your panellists. 

While you are moderating, aim to maintain a balanced momentum throughout the discussion until ending on a clear note of what the audience can do as a next step. Practice makes perfect so find opportunities to hone your skills. The you’ll be ready when the next start-up conference or another event needs someone to chair a panel discussion.


Jon Lam is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. 

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Published on: 22nd November 2021

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