Headlines after the recent presidential debate summed it up as chaotic and unregulated. Even though the moderator’s role is meant to be less prominent than the main contenders, Chris Wallace became part of the story for his exasperated attempts to restore order. The Commission on Presidential Debates quickly sought to make changes.
If not a cautionary tale, this is at least a teachable moment for those organizing meetings and conferences. Although a presidential debate has far higher stakes than those of most meetings, it reinforces the importance of rules and serves as a reminder of the crucial role of a moderator.
Moderators matter. They can make or break a meeting.
Inexperienced Meeting Moderators
Outside big events like presidential debates, it’s not uncommon for the person serving as a moderator to have little to no actual moderating experience. Granted, Chris Wallace’s day job as a news anchor is aligned with skills needed to moderate, but it still isn’t mostly about moderation. Delivering the news and interviewing individual newsmakers certainly helps prepare one to moderate a conversation or a panel, but it’s not quite the same thing. Of course, most meetings won’t have access to a moderator anywhere near as experienced or prepared as Wallace. On top of years of interviews, moderating a debate between presidential candidates means that one will spend hours upon hours preparing, which won’t be true for the average meeting moderator.
As opposed to Wallace, moderators at more quotidian meetings, panels and conferences have much less burnished resumes. Many meeting moderators are amateurs in the game, where their day job is far removed from the work they’ll do at the event. They may be board members from the organization, leading figures in the industry, the event planners themselves, or sponsors and exhibitors who are rewarded with a plumb spot of visibility. Many moderators have not gotten a minute of training for the gig. Most of them walk into their assignment with little guidance and low expectations. Often, meetings label someone a moderator when the actual job description could be summed up as welcoming the audience, reading the presenters’ bios, followed by mostly hibernating until the final minutes when they pipe up to ask if there are any questions, then summarily close the event with brief remarks.
That’s different than actual moderation. That’s more like someone calling out signposts on a journey. And it diminishes the experience for both those on stage and in the audience.
A one-hour panel or a two-day conference is but the tip of the iceberg that participants see, but there are hundreds or thousands of hours of preparation below the surface. Participants have no choice but to judge the entirety of an event on the few, visible hours that they see and experience, often in the form of moderated panels. Thus, a single unprepared moderator can ruin the prep that goes into a meeting while a slate of mediocre moderators can devalue the entirety of a conference. Luckily the reverse is also true: good moderators can dramatically improve events.
How Can You Improve Moderation At Your Events?
Choose Proven Moderators
First, choose people who are actually good at moderating. That’s probably the easiest place to start. If you think about conferences with hundreds or thousands of attendees, they form a giant network of people who have seen good moderators at work. It can pay to simply ask for moderators in the way that conferences seek recommendations for keynotes. Or, add a line in the budget to hire some legitimate moderators who will make a meeting shine.
Discount Fame And Connections
Conversely, if you’re really looking at the experience of the session, don’t choose moderators simply for their names or associations. For example, there are many authors and academics who are fantastic writers, researchers, and thinkers. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate to getting the best out of a panel, even if that topic is in their wheelhouse. In fact, a significant challenge of having a moderator who’s very knowledgeable about the topic is that he or she takes over the session, shutting out the actual speakers. Similarly, the vice president of the event’s sponsor is also not necessarily someone with moderation skills.
Have Real Panels, Not Sequential Speakers
While it may lighten the load on a moderator, a lot of what are labeled panels or discussions, simply are neither. There may be three, four, or five people on stage, but they’re not having anything that resembles a moderated discussion or a meaningful debate. Instead, they may each speak sequentially and then take a question or two at the end. That’s a relatively light lift for the person that you’re calling a moderator to handle, but it certainly misses out on the vibrancy and dynamism that one expects from a panel or a discussion. It also leads an audience to lay the blame for a stagnant event at the feet of the supposed moderator, even though the assignment was never actually meant to be a true moderator.
More Panelists Mean More Challenges
Similarly, don’t make your moderators’ job harder than it already is. Most moderators are not going to face the maelstrom that Wallace experienced during the presidential debate. Most panelists are better behaved, but that doesn’t mean that the event is set up for success. Talking to a single person, interview style, takes some deftness, but is quite manageable. And it’s workable to have someone moderating two or even three panelists. But conferences often succumb to the temptation of stacking panels with far more people than is necessary or practical. Think of the panels you’ve seen with six people plus a moderator. Assuming it’s an hour with time at the beginning and the end for introductions and questions, each of your panelists will be lucky to speak for five minutes. It’s a difficult task for a moderator to make sense of all the voices on the stage while also being cognizant that one of the leading lights of the industry has only spoken for one minute and needs four more to feel included. Even for skilled moderators, big panels are problematic.
At the very least, provide some sort of guidance and best practices to your moderators. This might be a one-page document or a phone call to brief them on your expectations. Do you want them to encourage debate? Do you want them to push the conversation towards a topic? Do you expect that they will read the panelists’ books in advance? Should they have a conversation with the participants before the event? Should the tone be a conversation among colleagues in a living room? Do you want speakers to comment on what the other panelists are saying or does everything have to move through the moderator like a hub and spoke model?
Train Your Moderators
Finally, train your moderators. Moderators can be an afterthought in the planning of an event. Get the important speakers and then worry about the moderators! That lack of attention can affect how they’re doing their jobs. Asking people to run panels is not as easy as telling them to show up at a day and time and magically doing it—and most people tasked with that assignment know it. But they don’t get much support.
Even an hour or two to go through your expectations, talk over the ground rules, and do some roleplaying for likely scenarios can pay huge dividends. It’s much easier to do something in practice before having to do it during the main event. Even giving your cadre of moderators a chance to ask you and their peers a bunch of what-if questions can be tremendously helpful. What if I have a panelist who is very domineering? What if I have someone who’s really quiet? What if the technology doesn’t work?
Empower Moderators—And Let Them Know It
Part of setting expectations or training moderators is to help them understand that they wield the scepter of power and they are the audience’s champion. That uncomfortable moment when a question that should have been 30 seconds drifts on endlessly? At that point, everyone in the audience is pleading for someone to make it stop. The moderator has to know it’s his or her job and to feel comfortable wielding that power. One advantage of events being online is that, in a worst case scenario, a moderator may have a single-click solution to silence someone or eject a troublemaker. But that confident moment when a moderator asserts authority may never arrive if the moderator hasn’t heard that doing so is acceptable—and if he or she hasn’t already roleplayed doing so in practice.
Given their oversized effect on the overall perception of the event, spending an extra hour or two helping moderators can pay really big dividends. Ironically, the whole point of spending more effort is to make your moderators less conspicuous. But that means that the reports about your event—be it a presidential debate or an industry conference—revolve around the quality of the content and the speakers rather than the missteps of the moderator.