Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A reader writes: Moderating My First Panel @beyondthecode15

(Editor's note: Reader and client Cate Huston mentioned she'd be moderating her first panel, so I encouraged her to write about it for this blog. I like the way she frames the roles of the moderator as curator, conversationalist, and coach, and of course, I'm delighted she found my book a helpful guide--for herself, and for the panelists. Next time--and I hope she does moderate again--I hope she'll draw out the conversationalist role so she feels less invisible as a moderator. Enjoy learning from her thorough-going process!)

I saw live tweets and follow up posts from Beyond the Code last year so I was really excited to be asked to speak or moderate this year. Since reading Denise’s book about moderating panels, I’ve been wanting to try out everything I’ve learned. So I was pleased, but also nervous to be moderating my first panel.

Like everyone, I’ve seen a lot of badly run panels and was determined not to be one of those! Add to my nerves: the topic was diversity in tech, a topic I normally avoid talking about. This kind of topic can be a minefield (we’ve seen it go horribly wrong), or just a series of boring platitudes. If I was going to do a panel on this topic, it had to go beyond what’s normally discussed. In fact, one write up noted that the panel started where others usually end which captures what I was aiming for.


Even though I’ve given talks all over the world, I still get nervous. I have a simple strategy for dealing with this: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.

But usually, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to talk about! This time, I didn’t really. I knew what direction I wanted to go in, but not really much idea of what topics would best fit the panelists.

My preparation started with 1-2 hours on the phone with every panelist, talking, and taking extensive notes. I asked broad questions about their views on the current state of “diversity” conversations, like “what makes you angry?” and more specific ones like “what career advice are you ignoring?” (the shallow level of the conversation around diversity sometimes degenerates to fixing women, which results in some pretty flawed career advice). Conversation flowed, so other points came out that weren’t directly relating to questions I had asked.

Then I turned these notes into a document with broad topics (“Hiring”, “Culture”) and slotted my notes from the conversation. I shared this with panelists, and encouraged them to add to it. We had a call to discuss this.

A couple of days before the panel (specifically: on the long haul flight there) I went through the doc and wrote a suggested run through, including the kind of comments I would make to tie things together, the questions I would ask, and the points I suggested each panelist made, pulled from the longer responses.

The day before the panel, we had a rehearsal time allocated. Not everyone could make it, but I found it really helpful and I think those that did make it found it helpful, too.

At the last minute I realised that a handout of our key points and running order would be really helpful, so each panelist had one of those. I had my iPad, and I bolded who I planned to call on first, trying to balance that out, so I didn’t always start with the same person.


I pushed off a lot of organisational stuff onto the conference organisers. At the best of times I’m not good at email, or coordinating multiple people’s schedules. I just asked Anna (BTC organiser) to take care of that kind of stuff, which she did far better than me! She also made sure we got our handouts (thanks Anna!)

The Roles of a Moderator

The point above about organisation is important, because I think we often expect the moderator to take on this role of corralling all these people to be in place, on time, etc. I did not take on that role. As a moderator I embraced three roles: curator, coach and conversationalist.


This was finding out: 1) what the panelists were opinionated about, and 2) organising it into a format that would have maximum impact. I tried to pull out the unique perspectives into my suggested points.

Goal: no-one says “I agree, and…” (yawn).


This was building a relationship with each panelist, so that I could help each of them present their most powerful, interesting selves on stage. We actually had a mantra! All day I was asking panelists “What’s our mantra?” and… well they kept forgetting it. But they demonstrated in on stage which is what matters. That manta? “Concrete, and concise”.

A couple of the panelists were worried about rambling and encouraged me to cut them off, instead I said “say half of what you think you need to, and then look at me: if you need to elaborate, I’ll tell you”.

A brief diversion about rambling: I don’t think people want to ramble, I think people do it, especially in these situations, because they lack feedback. Hence: offering that feedback. I hate interrupting people in general, but particularly for a panel of people who are more likely to be talked over in meetings, I really didn’t want to. In general my approach to things like this is very much an engineer approach: e.g. I am terrible in an emergency, so I see ensuring there aren’t emergencies to be part of my job. Here: I didn’t want to interrupt, so I tried to make it so I didn’t need to. Firstly by providing this feedback mechanism, and secondly by doing all the preparation that meant that panelists all had powerful, concrete points, to make. In the end I only needed to cut someone off once! Winning!

This was an aspect that panelists really had to choose to engage with. But a highlight for me was that one of the panelists reached out to me for extra coaching, and I gave her concrete and actionable feedback with examples. She came to the rehearsal and tried to put it into practise, and then practised by herself for the morning. By the time she was on stage her delivery was unrecognisable! She made “concrete and concise” points that were vastly more impactful as a result, and I was so incredibly proud of her.

Goal: Each panelist is interesting, and presents powerful and unique points.


This was the aspect of introducing, linking things together. Sometimes summarising with a pithy, tweetable, quote. It was also focusing my attention on the panelist who was speaking, bringing other people into the conversation, setting them up.

Goal: Conversation flows and no-one dominates the conversation.

Live Tweeting

I used to live in Ottawa, so I got to bring one of my friends along as the designated Live-Tweeter! Kelly did such a great job, as you can see in thestorify. Because of all the prep we did, we were able to make it easier for her by sharing the document we’d been working in. Also, it meant the panelists could share resources in the document and have them tweeted as they referenced them. This was really cool.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t go in with this process planned. I think I could have got better buy-in from panelists if I had been able to say up front what the preparation process would look like.

I realised the coaching aspect pretty late on: I could have framed myself better as a resource for that.

Time management is really hard for a panel and I didn’t have any way to estimate this. I ended up watching time whist it was happening, and about 3/4 through, I thought we would be about on-time and then an extra, lengthy answer, pushed us over slightly. We also didn’t have time for Q&A. For this kind of topic, having worked so hard on the framing, I was pretty nervous that audience questions would throw that off-track. With 5 panelists and a huge topic, I ended up feeling that what was prepared was so important that I didn’t want to cut any of it to gamble on an audience question! In the end people engaged on social media, and by coming up to the panelists after.

Recommending Denise’s book to all panelists was an act of genius. At the end when I thanked everyone one of them commented that because I’d encouraged them to read this book they all knew how hard I had worked! And they bought me a lovely present.

I would like a personal Live-Tweeter at future events… I’ll have to add it to my rider!!


In the last couple of hours before the panel I realized that firstly this had really challenged my control freak nature: I was nervous and wanted to prepare more but other than bugging people about “concrete and concise”, I had nothing left to do! Secondly: I have never worked so hard to be invisible. I think the panelists really appreciated me, and a lot of people complemented me on how well run the panel was, but I didn’t have the same buzz as when I give a talk and give people something to think about myself!

All in all I don’t know if I would run another panel: the prep time was comparable to prepping a talk, but I feel like I have much less to show for it. I’m super glad I did it once though, and got to connect with all my awesome panelists!

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.