One of the key roles of a conference moderator is making sure that everything goes smoothly. Whatever happens, the show must go on, and the only person who can ensure this is the moderator who has the microphone.

Nothing as dramatic has happened to me as the famous incident back in the 1980’s when BBC newsreader Sue Lawley carried on reading the news when activists stormed the studio – one handcuffing herself to a camera and the other crouching below the newsreader’s desk!

However, here are a few conference shockers that I had to deal with and ensure the show went on…

The rollercoaster of technical chaos: At one event, we were eagerly awaiting the keynote speaker’s wisdom, only to be met with the dreaded “failed to connect” message not once, not twice, but three times on day one. The organisers refused to ask her to pre-record her remarks for day two and, predictably, day two didn’t fare any better! Again, we twice tried to connect, but our speaker remained elusive, leaving us hanging without a single word of her anticipated keynote.

But wait, there’s more! As we attempted to patch in speakers from every corner of the globe, it seemed like the universe conspired against us. Five consecutive no-shows! It was like a virtual game of hide-and-seek, and we were losing spectacularly.

Thankfully, amidst the chaos, the Secretary-General saved the day in the studio. With the lines in limbo, I seized the opportunity to pepper him with questions, keeping the show afloat amidst the technical tempest. Lesson learned: Always have a trusty sidekick in the studio, or risk being left high and dry, counting down the minutes— a lifeline we gratefully clung to later that day.

Although not before a high-level speaker who was moderating a panel failed to get her microphone working and with a few minutes notice, I had to moderate a discussion I knew little about while she apparently looked on highly frustrated.

Comedy of errors: A client decided to skimp on tech support, only allocating a measly half-hour for a two-day extravaganza. Cue chaos. As fate would have it, I found myself in a heated exchange with an online speaker who seemed convinced I was playing a game of mute-and-seek. “Unmute yourself!” she demanded, blissfully unaware that I was at the mercy of Zoom’s audio settings. The back-and-forth, or should I say, the dialogue of the deaf, dragged on endlessly, with no technician in sight to untangle the mess.

Lesson learned: When it comes to technical support, you can’t afford to skimp. Ideally, the moderator should be equipped with an earpiece, ready to receive guidance from the producer or director lurking behind the scenes. But when that fails, it’s time to whip out plan B: enter the WhatsApp group, a lifeline of communication when all else goes haywire.

Shocking panelists

Professional moderators know how to keep calm and carry on during the event. Unfortunately, though we have little influence over who is on stage with us.

Here are my top three shockers:

1) 10 people on a panel about putting beneficiaries at the heart of humanitarian response with only one beneficiary on the panel.
2) 8 male ambassadors – a manel – in which the organisers insisted I scripted the questions. Not one I have on my showreel.
3) 3 heads of international organisations talking about high-level humanitarian policy with 1 woman from a small local foundation, who had nothing to contribute apart from saying that she was listening and learning. She had been invited by the organisers who wanted to have a partnership with her foundation.

You will notice I published this blog on the 1 April – so how many of these do you think were April Fools?!