Thoughts on Moderating Panel Presentations

I was recently a panelist at an event where the preceding panel went 15 minutes over its allotted time, which put significant constraints on my following panel.  I’ve moderated dozens of panels, and I hope I’ve learned a few things in the process.

Here are some of my thoughts on moderator guidelines (mostly of the “keep the trains running on time” variety):

  • Appoint a conference chair, even for small conferences. It doesn’t have to be a formal role, or the same chair for the whole conference – but there should be a chair to oversee the panels.
    • The chair can introduce each panel’s topic and moderator. That should take no more than 30 seconds.
    • The chair should make other conference announcements.
    • Make clear that the role includes starting and stopping the panels, breaks, etc. on time. That includes being assertive enough to stop a panel that has run over its time.
  • Appoint a moderator for each panel. A session without a designated moderator is not a panel – it is several presenters sharing a dais and competing for time.
    • The moderator can introduce the other panelists in about 30 seconds each. Give the panelists’ names, titles and affiliations – then refer the audience to any bios in the conference materials.
    • The moderator can describe the panel format, when questions will be entertained, etc.
    • The role includes enforcing the organization’s deadlines and guidelines for conference panels.
    • Make clear that the moderator role includes responsibility for starting and stopping the panel on time.
  • The moderator should meld all panelists’ PowerPoint slides (if any are used) together into a single, cohesive, integrated presentation. (I’m not advocating the use of PowerPoint – but it’s often used to supplement panel discussions.)
    • A panel is not three or four individual presentations.
    • Individual panelists should never be permitted to use separate PowerPoint decks.
    • An integrated panel presentation requires more than appending each speaker’s separate PowerPoint deck to the preceding speaker’s, one after the other, in a single PowerPoint file.
  • The moderator should rotate the panelists’ speaking roles so that the audience is not listening to one speaker for too long.
    • Listening to one panelist for 10+ minutes is too long.
    • Recommend that no panelist be a “talking head” for more than 5-7 minutes at a time before giving the floor to another panelist.
    • That means a panelist generally should speak to only 2-3 slides before the next panelist takes over.
    • The moderator should assign specific slides to each panelist in advance.
    • The  panelist assigned to specific slides can solicit comments on those slides from the other panelists, or the moderator can do that. Coordinate in advance where comments will be sought – and emphasize that the comments should be brief.
  • The moderator should specify the target times for each speaker to stop talking and turn over the floor to the next speaker.
    • It is irritating for the final speaker on a panel to be left with inadequate time because the earlier panelists each ran long. It  also denies the audience the chance to hear what that final panelist has to say.
  • Speakers generally should spend no more than 2-3 minutes on a slide, and should address only the key points.
    •  This forces speakers to focus on key points, to not read from the slides, and to not ramble.
  • A 45 minute panel can typically get through only 15-20 slides. The moderator should consider shortening a PowerPoint presentation longer than 20 pages.
    • It’s okay to include in the PowerPoint deck additional slides, or supplemental information that the panel does not speak to … but:
      • Use PowerPoint to “hide” any slides that you won’t be speaking to, and let the audience know you’ll be skipping bullets or slides that might show in the handouts
      • Consider moving supplemental information to appendix slides or a separate handout
  • The panel moderator should be responsible for applying the organization’s PowerPoint template to the panel’s PowerPoint deck and getting the slides, and handout materials, submitted to the event staff on time.
    • Branding is important. PowerPoint slides at an organization’s events (local, regional, national) should use the organization’s approved format – not disparate PowerPoint templates chosen by individual members, vendors, etc.
    • At the very least, the cover slide for each PowerPoint presentation should be in the organization’s format.
    • If there is a special format for a particular conference, then that special format should be used consistently for all PowerPoint slides at that event.
  • The moderator should ensure that the panel addresses all of the topics “advertised” in the program agenda and that all panelists are allowed time to speak to all of their assigned topics.
    • That may require the moderator to cut off discussion on one topic (no matter how interesting) in order to move to the next agenda topic.
    • Creating a dialogue among the panelists is great, and involving the audience in the conversation is even better – but the panel needs to get through the whole agenda in the time allotted.

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