Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When should you turn down an offer to moderate a panel? 9 times

It might seem counterproductive to turn down a chance to moderate a panel. After all, it's a chance to promote yourself, your cause, your company or your career.  But in these cases, I'd advise you to at least take a second look or turn down the opportunity outright. Organizers and program chairs, listen up, lest you make these offers to your would-be moderators:
  1. When there are too many people on one panel: Panels of more than three people are fraught with peril for the speakers, the audience and the moderator. You've got to allow extra time for introductions, which may mean that you, as the moderator, will speak longer than any one panelist--a difference that will be noticed by the audience, and one that is usually forgotten by the organizer who doesn't wish to say "no" to possible panelists. You'll have to allow more time as well for Q-and-A, and, knowing they have diminished time, many speakers will simply talk past the limit. I once had an organizer ask me to join a panel of 8, and each of us were to get 2.5 minutes to speak. No way! If you're tempted:  Ask yourself what value you or the panelists can add in such a short time slot. Feel free to reassure your organizing host that a smaller panel does not mean a disaster.
  2. When all the moderators are women and all the speakers are men: Some conferences attempt to cover a lack of women speakers or attendees by putting women in high-profile but low-content roles, such as moderating panels. Ask to see the entire roster of speakers and moderators to be sure you're not just window dressing for a conference with a gender imbalance. And if yours is the only panel with women, and the topic is women’s issues, consider saying “no” to discourage this practice.
  3. When the format's prescribed too tightly: If you prefer being able to walk around the room instead of standing behind a lectern, take questions at the top rather than the bottom of the presentation, or any other variation on the standard, be sure the organizers know that and can accommodate it. Likewise, if the organizers come to you with a precisely timed list of what needs to occur when, and there's no flexibility to exercise your good judgment, you may want to reconsider. If the format's already determined for you, think through whether it really meets your needs and lets you shine--or puts you in the announcer's role, rather than that of a true moderator.
  4. When there's not enough time to prepare: On a few occasions, I've been asked to step in at the very last moment, and I have. In those clear emergencies, a seasoned panel moderator can expect to be pressed into service. I'm more concerned when the call comes in advance, but only just barely (say, 3 days before or 2 days before). Typically, that means another moderator has cancelled, or the organizers didn't plan far enough in advance. Lack of time puts you at a disadvantage. Do you want to give up your preparation time? Have you budgeted for it? Think twice before you say yes. 
  5. When the subject changes without notice: This is a clear sign that the organizers aren't taking good care of their moderator or their speakers.  I've had a few invitations pegged to a specific topic, then found out it had changed after I accepted--without hearing directly from the organizers. Be sure you take the time to reevaluate if changes are made, and feel free to say "I think you'll need to find another moderator."
  6. When the preliminary negotiations go on for longer than the panel itself: You should expect to spend time talking to the organizers about how the panel will go, speaker issues, audiovisual equipment needs and the audience in advance. But if the logistics, location, topic, length and other basics keep changing and changing yet again, you may find it's a sign that the group's too disorganized--and disrespectful of your time.  Again, feel free to say "I think you'll need to find another moderator."
  7. When it's not your area of expertise: Be honest and say so. You may be a good moderator and liked by the group, but don't stretch past your knowledge base. Don't confuse this with feeling as if you have to be "the" expert. You just need to be "an" expert. If not, say no.
  8. When your schedule gets in the way of success: You may have a clear calendar on the morning of the panel--but if you're traveling all night right before you go on, and jet lag's a problem for you, say no. Don't pile on when you know you'll be tired, rushed or otherwise not at your best.
  9. When all you ever do is moderate: At base, moderation means you are primarily presenting the ideas of others, rather than your own ideas. If you are never a speaker, but always a moderator, you may want to turn down the next moderation offer by saying, "I've moderated enough panels--but please do call me if you want a panelist or speaker on this topic."
(Creative Commons licensed photo by the International Labour Organization)

Need more coaching on how to be a better panel moderator? Order the new ebook The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. At just $3.99 and available in many formats, it's a great back-pocket coach to take on stage with you in your smartphone or tablet. Find more tips on public speaking on The Eloquent Woman blog.