Advice from a Moderator on how to Select your Panel Speakers

Advice from a Moderator on how to Select your Panel Speakers

Have you seen the play, “Six Characters in search of an Author” by the Italian dramatist, Luigi Pirandello? Actors rehearsing for a play are interrupted by six unfinished characters in search of an author to finalise their story. It was first performed in 1921 and is part of the absurdist genre – breaking down the barriers between fantasy and reality.

Unfortunately, a century later, it is the absurd reality that many moderators can find themselves in when confronted with a cast of speakers selected by the organisers of an event. We struggle to work out why they have been chosen, and what they bring to the subject under discussion. We are then left to build connections between the speakers to create a narrative flow that makes sense to the audience.

Believe me, this can take hours of head scratching and sometimes the connections are just not there, particularly if an organiser has selected someone for non-editorial reasons such as an important donor, someone they want to do business or engage with in the future or because we must have a representative from all five corners of the globe.

Start with the what and not the who

Organisers often tell me they want a BBC-style discussion. If that is the case, they need to follow the principles of BBC news and current affairs programmes. You start with identifying the news of the moment – for event organizers – this translates as what is top of mind and relevant for the audience.

A lot of events today are focusing on building back better after the pandemic, asking if the world can be more sustainable. The BBC would take an opposing view structure bringing someone from the government to explain how they set new environmental targets to achieve net-zero emissions, and then an environmental activist who says the targets are inadequate. The BBC might also put into the mix an academic who can give context.

Unfortunately, organisers rarely want to have opposing views in a discussion – although this is often what is most interesting to an audience. They often prefer to have different perspectives on a subject. This is also possible but it takes more careful thought.

You need to come up with a title for the panel which ideally includes a question. For example, tea producers under threat – how to ensure production is environmentally, economically and socially sustainable? You could then invite a speaker from India and from Kenya to talk about the threats and possible solutions, before bringing in a speaker from a tea consuming nation, such as the UK, and a speaker from the FAO to discuss possible actions at local, regional and international level.

Be selective in choosing your panel speakers

If you want a real exchange of views, you need to select speakers who can not only speak about their area but pick up on points raised by other speakers or the moderator, and don’t have more than four speakers. All too often, panel discussions are in name only as they become interviews with each speaker and there is little exchange between the speakers.

One more point, do not accept the first speaker you contact. At the BBC programme producers hit the phones finding the right people for the subject and dismissing anyone who does not have strong views, new insights or who is not a confident speaker.

And they never accept people who all say the same thing. Imagine if Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author were all the same – that would have been mind numbing for the audience who would no doubt have voted with their feet and the play would not have endured as a hit show over the past century.

Moderating in the virtual world

Moderating in the virtual world

Many of you are moderating events and panel discussions in the virtual world. If you are an in-house moderator, you have an advantage over someone like myself in that you automatically know the subject area. However, that doesn’t mean that you can “rock up and just have a conversation” in the words of someone I coached recently in how to moderate at a virtual event!

Professional moderators may make it look effortless as they seamlessly transition from one speaker, subject area or segment to another, but it takes a lot of preparation to work out the editorial narrative of an event and the flow of a specific panel discussion.

In many respects in the virtual world, it is even harder for two main reasons:

1) It is more challenging to capture and hold the audience’s attention and;
2) Organizers are packing their events with too many speakers.

If you want to overcome these challenges and be a dynamic virtual moderator, have a look at some of my tips below:

Work with the organisers on event design

I run workshops and act as a consultant to organisations and companies on how to design an entertaining, participatory and insightful event. As an in-house moderator, however, you are well placed to influence the narrative and flow of the event from the start.

• Make sure organisers have made the shift from the real to virtual world and apply the principles of TV programme makers, namely short, varied and creative.
• Advise on the format. Blocks of speakers who present one after each other is overwhelming and potentially tedious for the audience. I have seen programmes where nine speakers make keynote speeches, presentations or remarks with no audience or moderator intervention for the first hour. Even two keynote speeches of 20 minutes each back to back before the audience Q&A is asking a lot of the audience.
• Limit the number of speakers in a panel discussion to no more than four. I have turned down panel discussions where there are seven speakers as it is impossible to generate a lively discussion of views. It goes without saying that it is frustrating for the panelists to be given so little time to get their points across and can certainly lead to information overload for the audience.

Prepare and deliver

Courtesy of the European Institute of Gender Equality

Virtual events require even more energetic moderation as you have to work harder to hold and retain the audience’s attention. Virtual event organisers are telling me how it is increasingly difficult to attract audiences due to “zoom fatigue”, but also how they see audience figures dive as soon as they lose interest.

• Prepare thoroughly. Whatever the format of your event – presentations, keynote speeches, interviews or panel discussions, you have to prepare by researching the latest findings and talking to your speakers to find out the points they want to make. This applies to in-house moderators just as much as to professional moderators like me.
• Interact with the audience as often as possible and ensure you leave enough time for audience questions throughout and at the end. In the virtual world this is easier as the questions are usually written, reviewed and collated for you unlike in the real world where people can make long rambling remarks or ask unclear questions.
• Manage time. This is a key component as people will leave if a segment or speaker goes on for too long. Similarly, if the event goes over time, you will find that many people have already moved onto their next Zoom call!

Having moderated many virtual and hybrid events in 2020, I know you have to be a more dynamic moderator in this environment. Unfortunately, even if you are naturally charismatic and a subject expert, you can’t just rock up as the moderator I recently coached soon realised!

If you or your co-moderators feel you would benefit from some coaching or group training in how to moderate at a virtual event in 2021, do get in touch.

Moderating Panel Discussions in a “Pandemic”

Moderating Panel Discussions in a “Pandemic”

The World Health Organisation has not yet declared the new coronavirus to be a pandemic, but to some of us who earn our living from moderating at events or training international teams, we are already suffering the consequences.

Last Friday the Swiss Federal Council announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 1000 people. It looked to be curtains for the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights scheduled for the 6th to the 15th March.

But yesterday the organisers announced their “programme 2.0” in which a smaller number of discussions and interviews would be transmitted live over the Internet allowing the public to ask questions of the speakers.

Proof indeed that webcasting is a potential solution for event organisers as they navigate the uncharted territory of travel bans and cancelled conferences and panel discussions.

Webcasting is just one option as I outline below based on my experience as a radio and video producer, presenter and panel moderator.

Audio or video

Audio, like radio, is much easier and less expensive than video.
You can create a sense of intimacy and connection with the listener if you have a moderator with a well-modulated voice and who is skilled at animating a discussion.

The speakers must also have good radio voices and have clear opinions and points to make.

With video, it is technically more complicated as you will need lights, camera and operators depending on the size of your budget. However, people remember things best when visually presented so video can be more powerful.

Pre-record or live

Live broadcasts get more viewers, as people love the sense that they are in real-time and capturing the moment.

However they come with the risk of technical glitches, challenging audiences and online trolls.

If you have a well-developed social media strategy and significant followers, then broadcasting on Facebook or YouTube live is a good option as it is technically not complicated and relatively inexpensive.

However, you have more control over a pre-recorded audio or video discussion and can also use the material in podcasts, online and on digital platforms to maximise audience engagement.

Whether live or pre-recorded, keep the panel discussion to no more than 30 minutes. Unlike traditional panel discussions, which can be from 45 minutes to 1 hour 15, those that are recorded and watched on line need to be shorter so you manage people’s short attention span.

Logistics and look and feel

Whether you are pre-recording or going live with audio or video, you need to think about the look and feel of the discussion. Do you want people to be seated on sofas like on Breakfast TV or in high backed chairs like at the World Economic Forum in Davos or will everyone be on high chairs news presenter style? It will all depend on the atmosphere you want to create.

Here are some other thoughts:

• Do seat the moderator and speakers so that everyone has eye contact. You don’t
want them to be seated in a line.
• Keep the number of participants to 4 including the moderator.
• Check the sound quality. Tie mikes are best for video and audio, as people often
don’t hold mikes correctly.
• Dress so that tie mikes can be clipped onto a shirt or blouse with no cable
• Make sure the room or studio is sound proof. If you are recording in an office
space, turn off the air conditioners as they hum.
• Provide make up or at least powder for video as this evens out the skin tone and
under studio lights guests won’t perspire.
• Select a moderator who is used to taking instructions from a director in their
earpiece if you are webcasting. The moderator will need to pass instructions on
to the speakers such as which camera to look into.
• Have an autocue for the moderator’s opening and closing remarks and for the
questions coming in from the public.

2020.02.25 – Studio Smart Cuts
L’équipe de 120 min en studio fond vert.
Photo : Philippe Krauer / Smart Cuts Video & Animation

Use professional production houses

Check out your local video and audio production houses and their studio facilities. They can advise you on what is technically possible in terms of lights, microphones, and cameras as well as how to manage speakers remotely and handle questions from the public.

In Geneva, I have worked with Actua films and La Souris Verte and just outside Lausanne there is Smart Cuts video and animation run by a former BBC colleague.

So event organisers, and moderators, don’t abandon hope in these uncertain times. Think creatively and you will be able to hold panel discussions albeit in a different format.