Panels and fireside chats have become my favorite kind of public speaking — they require so little prep! — and moderating can be even more fun than being a panelist. Throughout my career, I’ve learned so much by asking amazing people to talk about what they’re passionate about.
Here are 10 tips that have helped me moderate panels or fireside chats to get the most engaging and open conversations:
Introduce the panelists myself rather than asking them to introduce themselves. 3 panelists introducing themselves eats up 15 minutes without adding a lot of new info. After all, the audience already knows the panelists are accomplished. But when I introduce panelists myself, I can be far more complimentary about them than they can be about themselves. And I can share something interesting about the person that makes them feel seen — that immediately builds trust between us onstage, so our conversation can go deep fast.
Bring a perspective to the panel, and share my goal with the panelists. Is it to talk about times we’ve failed and what we learned as we recovered? Is it to discuss different ways of tackling a particular technical problem? Is it to describe how we each deal with our work/life balance issues? I pick something I find interesting, as that’ll automatically lead to a more engaging discussion.
Be a participant. It’s easy to think that a moderator’s job is to get as much info from the panelists as possible while staying silent themselves. But I get the best depth from panelists when I’ve shared enough of myself onstage that my panelists feel comfortable going deeper with me.
Focus on having a fresh conversation rather than extracting specific information. I pick out a few specific questions I want to hear about, and memorize them. Then I leave the index cards at home. That way, I’m not focused on a list of questions I’m trying to get through, but really engaged in conversation and following where it leads. I can say, “Tell me more about that”, or “That sounds like something I heard Alice say — Alice, what do you think?”
The most important thing is how well the people onstage get along. One of the most memorable panels I’ve ever done was with 4 other senior women in product. We had all worked together for years, and the panel was a rare chance for us to hang out. The audience was comfortable because we were comfortable, and we were secure enough together to share some of our most important and honest reflections. Even if the panelists don’t know each other, inviting them to socialize together for coffee right before the panel is way more useful than prep calls to talk through content.
Minimize prep. The more senior the panelists are, the less I tell them in advance. Content doesn’t need to be rehearsed — in fact, it’s better if the person is saying something they’ve never said before, so it’s just as interesting for them as it is for someone hearing it. And the more minimal the prep, the more likely senior people are to agree to join.
Translate if needed. If panelists get into jargon or talk about something that the audience might not have context on, can I give a bridge to the audience so they can understand the panelists’ thinking?
Bring in the personal. Even for a work panel, the audience wants to connect personally with the panelists. I like to ask about how someone’s family or hobbies impact their work, or about what they do for themselves to stay energized. Sometimes bringing that info into the panelist introductions helps to set the tone for the conversation and opens up everyone’s whole life as a safe space to discuss.
Spend the bulk of the time on moderator questions. Audience questions can be very specific to the questioner’s situation, and less relevant to the broad audience. The audience often starts to drift — you can see them mentally (and often physically) heading for the exits. I try to collect top questions in advance so I can choose the ones that are most compelling, or use chat or polls to surface questions real-time.
Close with a quick anecdote or takeaway from every panelist — a snappy lightning round that ties a bow around the panel. Favorite joke, best advice they’ve ever gotten, one thing they’ve learned — something they can describe in just a few sentences. This is a good question to share in advance, so panelists can think of something succinct.
These tips have not only helped me make panels lightweight and simple for the panelists, they’ve also made moderation duties lightweight and simple for me — which has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy the conversations!
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I really love your content, apologies if this is the wrong place, would love to collaborate at some point, just sent you a msg on LinkedIn.
Greetings from a fellow MS colleague in 2006