Tuesday, March 1, 2016

When moderating panels, embrace your inner housekeeper

When it comes to minding the clock, too many panel moderators punt. In the same vein as the popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, they want to keep in the moderator's duties only the things that bring them joy--like showing off their own expert knowledge or asking provocative questions. But when it comes to the so-called "housekeeping" duties, you need to do more than tidying up with joy, moderators. You need to dig in and hold your panel to its time, content, and other limits, embracing your inner housekeeper.

I know that doesn't sound glamorous. But it will bring you plenty of joy--from your audience, often the participants most ignored in panel discussions. This slideshow on the 5 most disastrous Comic-Con panels in recent memory sums up this feeling in a way that should convince you that your audience is paying attention to those housekeeping details:
Most reports on comic conventions have a “having a wonderful time, wish you were here” feeling to them. They focus on the good. But we’ve seen plenty of the bad: self-indulgent bloviating by movie stars or comics writers or artists who just aren’t as important as they think. Some discussion panels have taken twenty minutes just to introduce all their participants and another ten minutes to clear out between talks, leaving only thirty minutes out of the hour to do what they allegedly came there to do.
Moderators exist to keep the panelists on time and on topic. In addition to paying attention to how much time is left, this may mean managing panelists' expectations ahead of time, or interrupting them in progress.

I once arrived early to a moderating session to learn that one panelist had insisted on bringing and showing video. This was not an option offered to the other panelists, and the venue's limitations meant that a projection screen could be used only if it were lowered in front of the panel, blocking any view of them. Really, I'm not making that up. Invoking my moderator status, I said the screen and projector should be whisked away. "But what if he objects?" the organizer said. "Tell him to talk to me," I said. With three panelists and a tight schedule, I knew a video would take away time for audience questions. Getting the equipment out of the way before his arrival helped--seeing none, he never asked about it.

There are all sorts of moments when managing time and topic will arise as you moderate. I'm a firm believer in starting and ending on time, and not getting in the way of breaks and meals, as well as reconvening promptly after a break. After all, your audience typically has had the schedule in front of them for weeks, if not months, and has planned around it. Failing to enforce that schedule on the day seems unfair.

I recommend that you consider early on whether you are willing to handle those "housekeeping" duties, particularly the ones that will start and end the panel on time, enforce a generous amount of time for audience questions, and keep the panel in line with those goals. You can do much to make that happen during a panel, but it's smart to consider whether and how willing you are to enforce those targets before you accept a moderation gig. If you're not willing to play this important role, don't accept the invitation.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Chris Campbell)

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.