Moderating a panel discussion is stressful. The moderator has to master the subject matter, keep the panelists on message, and manage the audience’s attention span.

It is very easy to do badly – much harder to do well.

Recently, I moderated two high-level panels at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was launching a new financing mechanism with the support of the Belgium government.

When you have panelists of the caliber of the deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, President of the ICRC and Vice President of the European Commission, how do you as the moderator ensure that the discussion flows and the audience is captivated?

Below are my 10 tips for those who have been asked to moderate an event, or to brief a professional moderator:

• Allow time for briefings
I ask the organiser to explain the purpose of the event and the key messages to come out of the discussion.
• Do your research
I google the speakers, watch them on YouTube and see if they have done a TED talk, as this gives me a good idea of what they have to say and how they come across.
• Skype beforehand
I organise a Skype call with each panelist, so I can find out what they want to say and comment on. I send them the line of questioning with a proviso to be ready for follow-ups and to react to the other panelists. I also send detailed timings.
• Meet the speakers on the day
This builds rapport, ensures you know how to correctly present them, and gives you a chance to go over who sits where and which mikes to use.
• Position yourself within eyeshot
I sit either in the middle or on the end, but I make sure I have eye contact so I can either encourage participation or intervene if need be.
• Nail your opening
The first 40 seconds is key as you are at your most nervous and the audience is weighing you up. I set the tone with some punchy opening remarks – similar to a TV or radio presenter. (See the video at the bottom of the page)
• Keep the panelists to time
I am not afraid of intervening if someone is failing to answer the question or taking too long to make a point. I know that this usually gets the thumbs up from the other panelists and the audience.
• Observe the audience
If they are disengaged, I encourage them to participate – asking for a show of hands, and going to questions early.
• Questions rather than comments
When I introduce the Q and A session, I remind the audience that I am looking for questions not remarks. I repeat the question so everyone understands it
• Bring the event in on time
I summarise the main points at the end, ask the panelists to give their final remarks or call to action in no more than a minute. I back-time the event like a radio or TV programme ensuring we come out on time.

Follow these tips and your panel discussion should flow like good wine!

If you are still wondering about how to make a punchy opening, watch how I did it at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. My opening remarks are at 00:12.

Moderating high-level panels at the World Humanitarian Summit from Claire Doole Communications on Vimeo.

PS: Are you not moderating the panel, but still organising it?

Then read my blog How to create a perfect panel and do select a moderator who takes the stress out of moderation for everyone concerned.