How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel, A Comprehensive Guide

This post has now become recommended reading for moderators at Ad:Tech 2008, SXSW 2011 (see FAQ #10), and previous Web 2.0 Expo events.

Most Panels Suck: How To Stand out from Others
Sadly, the value of most panels are really poor, and this is mostly due to the lack of moderation. Yesterday, I heard that one nervous moderator asked the panelists to introduce themselves (which was his job), then went directly to Q&A, providing little structured value to the audience. On the complete opposite end, I’ve seen one self-important moderator answer questions from the crowd, when it was his job to field questions to the panelists.

How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel:

Objectives and Ideology

Think of the audience as your customers
Treat the audience like your customers, they’ve paid with money and time to come to your panel. Your job is to give them the information they need, or to entertain them, and often both. You’ve one of the most difficult jobs as you’ll have to set the pace, maintain some control, but know when to back off. Remember that you’re here to serve the audience first and panelists second.

Picking the right panel members
Often, a moderator is asked to select the panel, this isn’t always the case, but more than likely you will be involved in the approval process. Find folks that are experts in the field and have varying points of view. I find that 3-4 panelists is ideal, any less becomes difficult to flesh out all the viewpoints , and anymore becomes unwieldy. One time, I was 1 of 5 panelists, and I think I spoke a total of 5 minutes, a real waste of time.

Find out what success looks like
Look at the context of the conference, what is it about? who is attending? what are the other panels? Ask the conference organizers what success would look like, what questions does the audience want answered and what is their level of sophistication?


Get to know the panelists
This is often difficult as many panels never meet in advance, but in our social world many folks are online and can be found. Do Google searches on their name and the topic at hand, and you may be surprised what you find online.

Research the topic
The most entertaining panels have a dash of debate, look at an issue from many angles, practical steps to get started, and tell a few jokes. Find where the points of contention are and be sure to bring it up, this is how you’ll bill the panel. Use a blog post, Twitter or other feedback tool to glean questions from the community.

Properly market the panel
Successful panels will often have a title that is catchy, in tune for the conference, and has a detailed summary of what the audience will get out of it. You should blog about the upcoming panel, and the panelists should too.

Develop agenda bulletpoints
I try to establish some general high level bullets, 3-5 is good, so it helps the panelists to prepare and research. Don’t get into overly detailed questions, you never want them to be overly rehereased. I always have some secondary questions if no one asks questions, and it’s best to throw some curve balls to panelists after they warm up.

Have prepared notes
Print out the research you did of their bios, points of contention, the high level agenda, and follow up questions you may want to do. I’m known for requiring the panelists to bring a case study or example with measurable results.

Before you use powerpoints, really think it through
In most cases, panels should focus on the discussion and interaction between the panelists. Presentations should only be used in these situations: They add value by visualizing a conceptual concept, you’ve some industry stats that preface the event, or there’s a funny video that gets the crowd warmed up. Have a mental checklist: Is this going to add value? Does this give each panelist an equal response? Is this truly necessary?

Have a pre-briefing meeting
It’s really hard to get panelists to all get on the phone together, I can only think of a few times when this has worked. Instead, have a quick meeting in person before the panel actually happens, it will only take 15 minutes. This is good bonding time, be sure to remind them of the general structure, but make sure they’re relaxed and going to have fun. Listen carefully to the conversation, as you’ll pick up interest points that will help you setup questions while on stage.

Prepare all your notes, laptops, make sure everyone has water before you get on stage, in some cases, plan out where folks will sit. Remind the panelists, yourself, and the audience to turn off cell phones. Smile a lot, and have fun…ok, now we get on stage.

On Stage

Be a leader and know the impact of body language
I’ve studied this a few times, when I moderate, the body language I give off will be echoed by the panelists. If I sit up straight, or if you fidget, they will follow, the same happens when you speak. Look at the panelist when you ask a question, then look at the audience (they will follow suit), If you look at the panelists after you’ve asked a question, they will instinctively look back at you, an odd site to the audience. Unless responding to another panelists, the panelist should be addressing the audience so keep your attention on the customer.

Set the stage by providing context
As the first speaker the moderator should set the stage by quickly give an overview of why this panel was accepted, and what you’re going to cover. I tend to avoid the usual banter about ‘how this panel is going to be great’ or make length introductions about panelists, that usual pretty-talk is often low value. Next, give a brief introduction about the panelists –but save the lengthy bios for the pamphlet or website — folks know how to read. (submitted by Dave Pelland)

The first question should be a warm up
You should tee-up the crowd, and the panelists by asking a broad, easy question. Ask for a definition, or talk about the history of the topic, or why this topic is so interesting to the panelists.

Ask about benefits and opportunities
Some moderators let them conversation dive into the weeds too fast, focusing on ratty details, nuts and bolts before prefacing ‘why’ these things are important in the first place. Guide the panelists to discuss the benefits, and why these things are great in the first place.

Ask about risks, challenge the panel
The audience is tired of industry zealots. We all know the panelists are passionate experts in their field, but you need to ensure a balanced viewpoint is given. Give an example of how it’s not worked, and then ask the panelists to explore the risks. Give them the opportunity to talk about overcoming pitfalls, your audience won’t want to make the same mistakes.

Monitor the back channel
Monitor the “backchannel” which are conversations in IRC, Meebo, or Twitter about your panel. After the very disruptive revolt at SXSW 2008, moderators and speakers need to pay attention to how the audience (customers) are responding to what’s happening on stage. As Web 2.0 expo, I scanned twitter via my mobile device in real time and made live changes. (added March 2008)

When to Assert Control

Never let panelists pitch
This one really irritates the audience, as they’ve spent time and money investing in a panel, they don’t want to hear vendor pitches. Typically, when one vendor talks about how great his company is, the next panelists will need to one-up, and it never ends. The moderator needs to pre-warn panelists that won’t tolerate this vile deed, and will cut them off in public, and that’s embarrassing for everyone. BTW: If you’re in the audience and you see this happen, you have a right as a customer to demand them to stop, if not, vote with your feet and complain to the organizers, or ask a pro-rated payment of your wasted time.

…but let them tell a case study
I prefer that panelists demonstrate their expertise by showing their experts in the field, or provide a case study how their customers have been successful. There is a very thin division between this and a vendor pitch, so it’s best to remember that a panel is more like a white paper, not a brochure.

Keep on track
Panels will often get off-track to new discussions, while that’s certainly normal, your job is to gently bring it back into context. You’ll have to re frame a question or ask for further explanation on the topic.

Redirect panel hogs
Although rare, some panelists will overstep themselves and overpower the other panelists. It’s your duty to find an appropriate time (watch for when they breathe) and interject in a nice way. Compliment their opinion, and be sure to pass a question to the deserving panelist. (Insights from a concall with Warren Pickett of Ad:Tech)

Interaction gives life to a panel

Listen in
Watch the body language of the panelists, the one who wants to get a word in will be giving you non-verbal indicators, the audience will give off vibes of attention, boredom, or even disagreement. You’ll find little disagreements between panelists, be sure to pick up on those to segue to the next panelists, ask them for a contradictory point of view. This can be difficult.

Let the panelists talk to each other
Don’t over structure your panel by leading into a moderator question and response pattern alone, allow for some healthy banter between the panelists, and let them chatter, jab, and joke among each other.

Know when to pass the mic
Don’t let any particular panelists dominate the session over others, you can interject between their breaths and quickly pose the same question to the other panelists. I realize this seems rude, but this is your job, you represent the audiences time

Know when to shut up
I’ve been a panelist many times, and have certainly been annoyed when some moderators go too far, they may try to make it more of a game show, insert too much humor, or answer the questions from the audience. Don’t be that person. Success happens when good conversation starts to take place on it’s own, and you only need to gently guide.

Field questions from the audience
Always repeat the question from the audience, so everyone can hear and it’ll get on any recordings. Summarize long winded questions from the audience. Don’t let an over active commentator steal the show by asking too many questions, suggest that some discussion can be followed-up after the event. If there are no mics in the audience, you may need to walk down and bring the mic to them. Ensure that the questions are spread from different folks, and only let a single person ask a second question once everyone has had a chance.

Two Rules for Q&A: State your name, and make sure the question is a question
Questions are key to drive interaction, but before you take questions, let the audience know these two rules:  1) Get context from those that are asking questions on their name and company, this way the panelists can respond to first name to those who are asking, and have greater understanding. 2) Require that questions actually be questions.  We’ve all experienced the self-promoting pitch or the lengthy diatribe from an passionate audience member, so make sure the focus is still on the experts on stage.  The rest of the audience will appreciate it.

Wrapping things up

Ending the panel
Finally, at the end, let the members talk about where they can be found online, or where others can learn more about them. It’s best if you start, in order to set an example. “I work at company X in Y role, I can be found online at Z”. Thank the panel and audience, then prepare for the audience to come up to the stage and have 1:1 discussions.

Encourage the discussion to move online
Often the conversation between the panelists and members was so engaging that the never want to stop discussing it. Create a wiki, forum, or Facebook group to continue the conversation. Also assign tags at the session so that anyone who is blogging about it will be found. If you’re a blogger you may want to write up a wrap-up and link to anyone who took pictures. Thanks to Zena in the comments for this suggestion.

Final touches
Later, send a thank you email to all the panelists, keep in touch with them, and always cherish how well this has gone for you. Congratulations! you’ve just moderated a successful panel!

This is just my perspective, be sure to read what others have written on this topic:

  • eHow: How to Moderate a Panel
  • Derek Powazek: How to Moderate a panel
  • Guy Kawasaki: How To Be a Great Moderator
  • Paul Kedrosky: 10 Rules for Being a Great Panel Moderator
  • David Spark has a very clever guide for multiple roles
  • If this post helped you moderate a panel, or you’ve further suggestions, please leave a comment.

    130 Replies to “How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel, A Comprehensive Guide”

    1. Jeremiah – as someone that was part of your panel yesterday, I would like:
      1) thank you for a job very well done – the panel was a lot of fun as a result of your expert moderation
      2) confirm to your readers that you executed against your prescriptive steps outlined above with laser focus.

      I am tagging this list on as we speak so that I will have it available as a future reference guide.

    2. Thanks Jake, Ill try to check it out

      Aaron, actually, I didn’t do everything I said yesterday, I didn’t get as much time to learn about the panelists in advance.

    3. In the heat of the moment on some panels I’ve been apart of, a very smart moderator was there to save it from becoming too inward focused. These are great tips. I think another one would be – prepare for things to go wrong. A projector won’t work. A seat’ll break. A heckler will disrupt the conversation. Etc. Being flexible can help a lot when you’re moderating. I love the one about dealing with people who dominate – because there ARE those people. But there’s also people I’ve seen on panels who are like pulling teeth to get to discuss everything (but when they do say something it’s profound) but moderators who keep trying to draw them out is just painful to watch.

    4. Thanks for writing this post Jeremiah and nice job on the panel yesterday. As a former conference planner, I’ve pulled together a lot of panels over the years and selecting the moderator is often more important that the panelists. As you point out, a weak moderator doesn’t serve the panelists (or the audience) well.

      One comment I’ll make (in the the “never say never” dept)… if your panel is billed as a vendor panel (“Solution Square Off” or some other provocative name), it’s ok to let them do a little grand standing. The operative word in there is “little” of course. I’ve seen this type of panel be very successful and, conversely, a complete failure, so it’s important to lay out the rules of engagement in your pre-meeting with the panelists.

      Thanks again!

    5. Jeremiah, an extremely valuable post especially for event planners. They can give this list to panel moderators so that every event panel discussion flows right – all sessions are set up for success.

      One thing to consider, setting up a post-panel discussion via a wiki, blog, twitter, etc. (open to the audience or maybe closed for the panelist) if there is appetite to continue the conversation. The time commitment is a consideration; however just food for thought.

    6. Jeremiah,

      I work for the DOD, managing a portfolio of medical research projects. I go to to probably 6 or 8 large conferences a year, and numerous smaller ones.

      In the medical & research-related conferences I attend, MOST panels are NOT run like this. BUT – they would ALL benefit of they read & adhered to even half of your points.

      -Starting with knowing their panelists! It is almost embarrassing to listen to a moderator read a panelists bio for the audience, mispronouncing words, etc., as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen the information.

      Most panels are such that each panelist will give a 15-20 minute powerpoint briefing, all panelists one right after the other. Then the moderator MAY pose one or two questions to the panel, asking specific panelists to comment, then there may be a few questions from the audience, which one or another of the panelists may address, and then that’s it!

      And several members of the audience will indeed wake up in time to go to the next session they have marked in their program.

      Really dreadful. I’ll be forwarding your notes on to various colleagues!

      thanks! – Troy.

    7. Zena – I love that idea i.e. setting up a post panel blog or wiki. Too often there is so much more conversation that wants to take place after the panel but it has no real productive outlet. Something to consider for all event coordinators (and/or moderators) in the future!


    8. I was very happy to see this. I am moderating a panel in a few weeks between bloggers from Dell, Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld. Additionally, I am sitting on a panel at SXSW, so I will send this link to my moderator there. I had many of these ideas already, but having a comprehensive “How To” in writing is fueling some further ideas. There is a reason I am subscribed to your feed, and pieces like this are why.

    9. Great post Jeremiah. I just moderated my first panel at the DC eMetrics last fall and could’ve used your well-articulated advice.

      In my case, I was a last minute addition. My panelists were already selected, and I did my best to look up the speakers, their companies and products/services so I’d be familiar with each.

      My whole strategy was “do no harm”, since no one came to here my banter.

      I would stress:
      Keeping things on time: to be fair to all panelists, keep them on their allotted schedule and give them expiration notice (i.e. 3 minutes…) It’s also considerate to attendees, who have another session to attend.

      Be aware of the rebroadcast/cybercast considerations. If your panel is being taped, all audience questions need to be spoken into a mic or you need to restate them. Generally, it’s not a bad idea to restate audience questions so that everyone can here them. For the sake of tape/cybercast, it’s also nice to hear the speaker’s names before and after they speak, i.e.
      “Thank you Tony…”

      Finally, if the conference is collecting PPT slides, you can remind presenters to leave their presentations for posting online.

    10. Simple great. Remembering my panels I would like to stress:
      – know the panelists
      – search the web for the positive and negative sides of the topic before the panel
      – “Success happens when good conversation starts to take place on it™s own, and you only need to gently guide.”

      Really comprehensive – thanks!

    11. That’s a great post. Thanks for writing all these ideas down. Having just run a panel session myself, I now wish we’d had your ideas before we started!



    12. What a great and timely post. I love the added bonus with links to how other people have treated the topic as well. I believe we have you confirmed to join us in the Cisco studios as a pseudo panelist/guest in February for TechWiseTV. I will be brushing up on your list here. Thanks again! -Robb

    13. That’s a great guideline. I wish 20% of panels followed it.

      I also can’t stand when panels start with a 5 minute talk from each person. The panels over, there’s been no interaction, it’s just been 4 short talks.

    14. Speaking as a conference interpreter, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an international panel discussion go terribly wrong. The only real issue I’ve seen is that panel members tend to want to cram too much into their contributions, so the wrapping up time tends to be rather short, just a few words and Thank you.

    15. Two suggestions to add.

      1. Never let go of the mic. I’ve seen moderators pass the mic when there are too few onhand, and lose control.

      2. Interject, frequently. It is as important as the body language you mention to maintain control through interaction. This allows the moderator to steer conversation towards succinct points, answering questions or promoting dialog. Watch a BBC interview, and you’ll see what I mean.


    16. You have a great set of suggestions and guidelines going on here. People would really benefit from reading this post. I don’t think it’s only limited to moderating panels only though. Some of the tips can even be applied in other situations. Hopefully, I’ll be able to incorporate some of them in an impending meeting myself!

    17. I think panelists that engage in extensive blatant pitching should be held accountable. People don’t pay $500-$2,500 to attend conferences to hear panelists pitch their services or company.

      Once the panel is over there isn’t really a way to get your money or your time back.

    18. Jeremy,

      Fantastic post. As one of the organizers of the mesh conference in Toronto (, we have come to realize that a great panel can be ruined by a bad moderator. It’s important to put as much thought into picking a moderator as you do selecting panelists.


    19. Jeremiah, I was not at your session, but your outline is spot on and a great set of guidelines for all of us who moderate or speak. One item that you may want to add is for a speaker to listen to the moderator and when speaking be clear, on topic an concise. This all helps keep the session interesting and focused. Thanks for your post and I will forward to other organizations that put seminars on so we can use this in other shows. Thanks and looking for more insights from you on the success of a session. John

    20. Man, nothing worse than a panelist who pitches. I’ve taken to emailing them afterwards to complain. So really glad you and other moderators are wise to these tactics.


    21. Thanks, Jeremiah. Very helpful information. I’m helping to build a panel for a healthcare event in the fall 2008 and will certainly follow your guidelines.

    22. I read this because it was linked, as a recommended read, from the speaker proposal guidelines for BlogWorld Expo. Before I read it my opinion was that I’m a good, experienced moderator. Now I see how I could do so much better and how panelists and audience could get so much more value from panels organized and moderated with these guidelines in action.

    23. Have you observed greater interaction as the moderator standing to the left, right or center of the panel? Maybe this is a variable based on the size of the panel but feedback would be most appreciated.

    24. Read your blog just before moderating a small international event and even though I’ve done a few before I was grateful for some key tips that I’d not come across. Since I gained from the effort you made let me contribute something back. As moderator you often get the CVs or resumes to edit for intros and they can come in all shapes and sizes. When timing is tight the temptation is to overdo it and standardize but I’d say judge your audience and offer more information if it’s there. Scientists and academics especially do want a brief career/college list and layers of qualifications. It helps them assess the upcoming speaker (even though it risks stereotyping) and more important during the networking sessions it gives them ice-breaker topics and small talk fodder. Thanks again Jeremiah.

    25. Thank you Jeremiah, I follow you on Twitter and Friendfeed and was lucky see your Tweet this morning. I do corporate video and have created numerous guides for clients over the years mainly focused on video presentations. This is the best guide I’ve seen to date that covers the planning, delivery and follow up for moderating a panel session. You’ve provided a great framework for those of us who will standing behind the podium leading conference sessions. I’m planning and moderating two panels sessions at the next Streaming Media West conference in San Jose and your pearls of wisdom came just in time to help me be a better moderator. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and the links the other guides. All the best!

    26. Jeremiah,
      Thanks for tweeting this link. Excellent!

      I’m finding it difficult to keep at 3-4 panelists, more like 6-8. I’m thinking in groups with like domains and rapid fire. Panel questions and answer structure would divide time for panelists and keep info flowing. I think I have a good plan for this. If the panel gets selected, maybe I’ll get a chance to try it out. I agree, bad moderating can kill the message no matter who the panelists.


    27. TedC Great stuff. 6-8 is prob too many. I’ve been on some of those panels and it’s hard for panelists to go deep into any discussion, and they often step over each other, and get caught up on one topic as they keep wanting to answer each other. Quantity isn’t quality.

    28. Great advice. One more I’d like to pass along — when you’re introducing the panelists, there’s no need to read the entire bio from the conference guide aloud. If you get someone with a long bio, reading it while everyone else fidgets can kill the panel before it’s started.

      All the audience needs to hear are the speakers’ names, companies and titles, and let’s get on with the show.

    29. Hi Jeremiah,

      While surfing the web I came across your post and just wanted to say thanks for the helpful advice! I plan several panels a year for my company, and will be taking note of your suggestions for the next one.


    30. Excellent timing! I am going to forward this to my co-organizers, moderator, and panelists for our event on the 30th on “Social Media and the Presidential Elections: a Paradigm Shift.” Thanks for another wonderfully informative post. I got here through your tweet.

    31. Phil

      Often a tag like “#forrester09” has been assigned by the conference organizers.

      That’s a best practice, as then the audience may create several tags –causing confusion.

    32. Great article–one of the best ones I’ve seen on panel moderation.
      I’m a communication coach for presenters/executives and find that clients shrug off a panel as ‘easy’ Certainly, we know that a lively panel discussion IS more engaging than a solo presentation To go from a good to great in panel moderation, these tips make the the difference.

      Laurie Schloff

    33. Thanks, Jeremiah, for this excellent advice. I’m preparing to moderate a conference for financial professionals, and you’ve given me lots of tips and tricks to remember!

    34. This is a great article and an amazing guide to panel moderation! Thanks for inputing and sharing! I am a frequent conference speaker and moderator (tomorrow I will moderate Search Congress Bilbao, soon other conferences around Europe) and from now on I will make of your post my moderator checklist! And of course I will tweet this straight away!!! =)

    35. This is a great article and an amazing guide to panel moderation! Thanks for inputing and sharing! I am a frequent conference speaker and moderator (tomorrow I will moderate Search Congress Bilbao, soon other conferences around Europe) and from now on I will make of your post my moderator checklist! And of course I will tweet this straight away!!! =)

    36. This is a great article and an amazing guide to panel moderation! Thanks for inputing and sharing! I am a frequent conference speaker and moderator (tomorrow I will moderate Search Congress Bilbao, soon other conferences around Europe) and from now on I will make of your post my moderator checklist! And of course I will tweet this straight away!!! =)

    37. Thanks for this comprehensive approach to moderating. When I first began 7 years ago, I learnt as I went resulting in great interactions or total flops.For one, I had a great deal to learn , and two, I couldn't always chose my panelists.I am definitely making this guideline my framework.

    38. Thanks for this comprehensive approach to moderating. When I first began 7 years ago, I learnt as I went resulting in great interactions or total flops.For one, I had a great deal to learn , and two, I couldn't always chose my panelists.I am definitely making this guideline my framework.

    39. Thank you for this comprehensive and very useful guide, I find it to be very useful. I am thinking of becoming a moderator in Africa. I attend a lot of conferences/seminars/talks and noticed not many women are engaged as moderators. So I want to break that mould. Thiss I believe will start me off.

      Do you know any organisations/institutions that runs practical workshops on how to be an effective moderator?

      once again many thanks.


    40. This is still one of the best guides, even 2 years later. Thanks for re-posting….Completely agree with the prep, body language, and flow comments. It’s also my experience that if the panelists are having fun, enjoying eachother, and energetic, the panel will take care of itself. Nothing is worse than a dull, “pulling-teeth”, low-energy panel.

    41. Wow! This is incredible. Thanks for much. I have 2 panels that I’ll be moderating in the coming weeks and want to do my best. Really appreciate the expert guidance.

    42. Thank you so much for this wonderful guide! I am a young student taking charge of three senior lecturers on a highly contentious topic this Thursday and I was beginning to have a panic attack, luckily you have told me all I needed to know 🙂

    43. i am look for a moderated panel to get site right for word press is their one out their can help me,

    44. Thanks for the tips. I find it very useful and will certainly help me in preparing myself as moderator for a conference on evidenced based policy tomorrow. Just arrived on my door step at the right time. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.


    45. thanks for the tips.  I will be a first time moderator for a business conference next week and this is really a great help for me.  

    46. AMAZING insight…. i am about to moderate HR Conference next week and was looking for help on the net… and found this…. i took notes of points mentioned above…. Thanks Jeremia.

    47. AMAZING insight…. i am about to moderate HR Conference next week and was looking for help on the net… and found this…. i took notes of points mentioned above…. Thanks Jeremia.

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    49. I would be hosting a panel in a week from now and found this article very very helpful. Thanks and keep them coming!

    50. Thanks for the sound advice. Yes, it isn’t always possible to get all the panelists on the phone together but If you could get 2 or 3, it’s a good start!

    51. “The first question should be a warm up.”  Why?  If you are prepared, you can ask a hard and interesting question or an easy question and ask them to state why it is incomplete/inaccurate.  What do the people in the audience want to know (additional excellent point above)?  Bob Joyce  P.S.  I would “Like” this very much, but Facebook/Linked-In all of a sudden says I don’t exist.  

    52. the notes above are a good confidence boost to remind us of key points on conference moderation with panels. i like the bit that the audience is the consumer and that moderators are facilitators….i have seen many events where moderators do more talking than the panelists!!! a balance is very necessary and role definition. thanks

    53. This is the nice strategies for a
      Conference Panel any one have panels which are going to do this
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    54. I will have one after 2 weeks, that is a helpful one.
      Could anybody pls help me with some funny but smart question and answer session experience pls?

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