Dear Panel Moderators,

Congrats! You’re the moderator!

Tired of yet another boring panel? Maybe it’s time to try something different.  It’s time for a Slightly-different Moderator Method, one that helps you pull cool stories from your speakers.
What do you remember from the last panel presentation you saw? If you are like most of us, what you remember is likely short on details. But if one of the speakers told a cool story you probably remember it. Here are some things that people like from their panels:

  1. Funny stories. Humor helps.
  2. Interaction between the panelists: like you are a fly on the wall during a cool conversation.
  3. Stories, period.
  4. We want the inside scoop. Some not-previously-known tidbit. A secret. Some news.
  5. Something actionable – a tip or trick we can take back home and use.

As the moderator, it’s up to you to make your panel truly excellent. So, here are some suggestions to help you.
Does your panel prep usually go something like this?

  1. Get speaker names, emails and biographies from organizers. Send around email with 6 different times no one can make. Send around another email and schedule a conference call.
  2. Wait on conference line until you have half of the panel, one assistant and the PR person for your biggest name speaker. Discuss approach and potential questions
  3. Send around email with questions everyone has agreed upon. Answer multiple emails with variations on the theme. Get other questions from the speaker who wasn’t on the call
  4. Meet all the panelists at conference and change whole approach/panel thesis. Before you walk on stage, talk briefly with the substitute speaker (one person cancelled)
  5. Read long boring biographies full of accolades and fancy sounding titles. Try not to yawn. Ask all the speakers the same question – last two speakers agree with first speaker.
  6. Ask for audience questions – listen to the crickets.
  7. Thank panelists. Forget to thank the organizer. Scurry off stage.

Slightly different panel prep:

  1. Get speaker info from organizer and invite the speakers to a short 1-on-1 conversations. (I use Calendly to make it easy for my contacts to book 15-minute calls with me – no back and forth.)
  2. Ask them for a two to three sentence biography. What’s most important? Is there a one sentence option? (The best). You should look at their backgrounds – especially for big changes the could herald an interesting story. (Why did you leave Alaska, move to NYC and become a dog walker, Dr.?)
  3. Interview each speaker individually about their experience, background and what their goals are for the panel. Your goal is to discover the stories you can get them to share with the audience.
  4. You should also reassure the panelists that you are there to make them look good. You’re not a panelist – so don’t become one.

Here are some examples of the types of questions I use to “find the stories”:

  • Instead of asking an inventor or founder about their product, service or company, ask them to tell you the story of a specific customer and how they solved that customer’s problem.
  • Ask them to tell you about their “aha” moment (the moment they had the brainstorm for their company or product.)
  • Ask them to tell you about what specifically in their background, upbringing or their parents’ or a teacher’s influence led them to where they are today. Did they have any idea, as a kid, that they would be doing what they do today?
  • Ask for the secret. What’s one thing, maybe related to the topic but maybe not, that people don’t know about them or their company, and they would be surprised to learn.
  • Ask them for the “why” and “how” of any big changes. (“You left the corporate world for a non-profit – that’s a big change. What led to that change?)

Now you can focus more on the topic – these are general questions you can ask anyone (but not everyone) on the panel. Don’t ask everyone the same question.  That gets boring fast. Here are some good options:

  • What’s the most common question you get asked about the topic?
  • What’s the most surprising question you have ever been asked?
  • What’s a counter-intuitive piece of information that you can share?
  • What actionable tip can you share?
  • What’s the one thing everyone (inside the industry and outside) should know about the topic?
  • What’s the most common misconception people have about the topic?

I will often send around these questions to my speakers suggesting certain questions for certain speakers. I will be very clear that I won’t ask each panelist to answer the same questions.  I’ll make it clear that answers should be short.

How many questions should you prepare for a panel? Here’s some basic panel math – usually the length of a panel divided by number of panelists equals the number of questions you should have prepared.  Example: 1-hour panel with 4 panelists usually equals 15 questions – you won’t get to them all. BUT, use this new method and you should have more as not every panelist will answer the same questions.

Now you can create a script for yourself.  A script (doesn’t have to be completely written out) helps you remember all those little details you might otherwise forget.  Think about the flow of the script. Does it make sense? My scripts generally contain:

  • The 1 to 3-line bios of the speakers and any name pronunciations (I’m terrible at pronouncing names).
  • The name of the organizers and the organizing body for thank yous
  • The name of the session and the session abstract. What 2-3 questions do you want to answer during the session?
  • Any session details – time, room number, cell phone numbers of your panelists, panel duration.
  • A brief intro so you can make sure the audience is in the right room! This panel is about…
  • Reminders throughout to ask the audience for questions. (“Write down any questions you have now to ask at the end of the panel.”)
  • Set up your questions on your script with the panelists’ names next to them. Remember your goal of getting your panelists to tell their stories.
    • “Now Jill, you have a unique background for someone in cyber-security. Tell us the story about how you ended up in this business?”
    • “Debbie, tell us the story about how your product saved the day for one of your customers.”
  • How about a creative introduction? For a recent panel, I picked out some interesting but little-known facts about the panelists and asked the audience to guess:
    • “Which panelist was an EMT in high school?”
    • “Which panelist turned down a job with Google to start her company?”
    • “Was a master dressmaker turned pharma executive?”
  • Figure out your ending – after all the stories and questions, what will you and the panel leave the audience with? What’s your last question or directive? Some standard examples:
    • What’s one piece of advice you want to share with our audience?
    • What’s the one thing you want the audience to do when they get back to the office?

Is there a way for the panelists to ask each other a question?

Onsite: Before the panel

  • Take time to talk to members of the audience. (Your organizing body should be able to tell you something about the audience – titles, level, demographics, interest, etc. but there is no substitute for personal interaction.)
    • What kinds of questions do they have for the panelists?
    • Why are they at the conference itself?
    • What have been the conference/event highlights for them?
    • Set up your shill or stooge. This is someone who agrees to ask a question from the audience to get the ball rolling.  And this doesn’t have to be some nefarious plot.  When you are talking with the audience beforehand, find someone with an interesting question and encourage them to ask it.  (“That’s a great question.  When I ask for audience questions, I’ll ask you to share it. Is that OK?”) Then, instead of waiting for questions to get asked, go right to the first person. It may make sense to have more than one and call for other questions in-between.
  • Take the time to speak with your panelists.
    • Introduce yourself and the panelists to each other.
    • Check in on time and location.
    • Ask for/Discuss any event-specific thoughts or questions. (“I’ve spoken to several people at the event who would like to know…”)
    • DON’T spend a lot of time talking about the panel – save it for the stage.
  • Smile and enjoy yourself!