At the center of any panel discussion, you’ll obviously find panelists. People in this role are present to speak about their experiences pertaining to a given topic. It’s fair to assume panelists are the main attraction of the event and will thus take up the largest portion of speaking time. If the panel is a success, the audience will experience a smooth, cooperative discussion between this group of speakers. But this type of collaboration doesn’t happen automatically onstage; it requires behind-the-scenes preparation—and the help of a great moderator to keep the conversation flowing.

What does it take to successfully moderate a panel discussion? As one expert writes for Entrepreneur, “These folks are great at improvisation, know a tremendous amount about any given subject, and understand what it takes to avoid facilitating an audience slumber party.” In other words, moderators serve as the link between panelists and audience members. It’s a highly important role that can make or break the quality of the panel.

Panel moderation tips

Here are a few pro tips for moderating your next panel discussion successfully.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Panelists are typically chosen for their expertise and unique points of view. Moderators are there to make sure they get to impart this wisdom to the audience. This requires organization, solid prompts and an understanding of what each panelist brings to the table. When a moderator knows little about the panelists—or, worse, makes a mistake during introductions or subsequent discussion—it’s insulting. It also calls into question the credibility of the entire event. Audience members may become confused or frustrated. For this reason, the first step is preparing, then preparing some more.

Depending on the exact nature of your panel, this may involve one or more of these actions:

  • Set an objective, then communicate it to panelists.
  • Study up on each of the panelists, including their relevant work.
  • Distribute sample questions to panelists ahead of time.
  • Outline a loose timeline and format for the discussion.

When all is said and done, there’s no such thing as being too prepared when you’re tasked with moderating.

Get the Audience Involved

The best panels are engaging from start to finish. Allowing audience members to slip into passive observer roles is dangerous territory; you may never earn back their attention. Poll Everywhere recommends panel moderation and interactivity should be your aim; meaning you’re prepared to get the audience involved in asking questions of panelists. How you handle the question-and-answer portion of the panel makes a huge difference in terms of final impact.

Simply put, passing the microphone is clunky. It allows only one person to speak at a time. It can also be difficult to hear or understand what someone is asking. A better strategy is using audience response technology, which allows viewers to send in comments and questions for panelists via their mobile devices. As the moderator, you can then choose the most relevant submissions for panelists to answer.

Encourage Organic Conversation

Some structure is good, but you want to avoid an overly formulaic panel. Try this: Give panelists permission to respond to one another instead of expecting panelists to respond to only you, the moderator. This will help give the panel a more organic feel, like a true conversation instead of a repetitive series of answers. Of course, you may need to guide the discussion back on track if a certain question starts to eat up too much time.

These pro tips for moderating your next panel discussion will help you expertly serve as the go-between for audience members and panelists. Make sure you do your homework before the big event and be prepared to facilitate a lively and dynamic Q&A session.