Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The case for a moderator-led panel (aka no presentations)

Time per panelist should be a top concern for the panel moderator, for two reasons: It's definitely what the speakers will think about when they decide whether to participate, and when planning what they will say. And it's something that conference organizers are all too willing to squeeze to accommodate other factors, from adding too many speakers to overall time constraints.

That's why asking the organizer about how much time each speaker will have is part of the long list of questions in my ebook for moderators. When you are first discussing plans for the panel, if the organizer doesn't focus on time per panelist, you should. Take a look at the overall time slot and cut the time in half, assuming one half for discussion and one half for questions from the audience. Then divide the number of panelists into that half-time.

Once you've worked that simple formula, the difficult questions arise. If the panelists will each have less than 10 or 15 minutes to speak, you might recommend a "no presentations" rule. I'm not sure when someone decided that "panel discussion" meant "every speaker gets to do a PowerPoint presentation," but it's often an assumption on the part of both the organizer and the panel....even when the organizer has left just a couple of minutes per speaker. (My own record was a panel in which there would be 9 speakers, each with 1.5 minutes. I turned that one down.)

A "no presentations" panel has several advantages:
  • Limiting the use of slides is among the best ways to keep a panel within its time limits.
  • Speakers will have less preparation to do, making it easier for them to say yes. If you're seeking speakers who are in demand, this is a real selling point for your panel.
  • Without canned presentations, the audience will sense the possibility of surprise and suspense. Who knows what will be said? That's a big attraction for conference audiences.
  • Likewise, audience members will sense that there's more of a chance for their questions to be answered, whether they ask or the moderator asks--another selling point for attendees.
The downside, if there is one: Moderators need to prepare more and better questions to lead the discussion. I see this as an advantage for the moderator, not a disadvantage. It allows you to play a more direct role in the panel and show off your expertise. Will you try this approach for your next panel? If you're interested, negotiating this format early in the planning process is a must. Don't blindside your speakers or your organizer by deciding on this approach last-minute.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Columbia GSAPP)

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.