Technique for panel moderators: when your panelists forget the audience exists

The scene: You are jazzed-up to moderate your panel event! You now find yourself about to conclude a key question…and almost ready to move on with your panel to one of your most anticipated themes and next conversation. But you notice a few of your panelists starting to have their own “conversational tea party”, engaging with eachother as if the audience wasn’t in the room. You then realize the discussion needs to progress to a more useful place for the audience…& quick!

In this type of scenario, I find using a dialogue management technique (fondly called progression) can really help.

It’s great to implement when a question has been addressed thoroughly in your view by all relevant panelists — but then — discussion starts to meander off-message or toward excessive ‘inside baseball banter’ that is void of utility. A useful indicator on when to use this dialogue management approach is when you recognize progression of next questions or audience engagement is being far too delayed or has stopped.

Another indicator to you as moderator on whether or not to assert this technique is your growing concern that the panel is becoming indulgent. As example, sometimes conversant panelists will answer the targeted question; but then they start asking unrelated questions to eachother …sidetracking inclusion of the audience – as example: “Oh hey did you attend TEDxPeachtree that year Ben keynoted, what a great guy that Ben, his kids and mine are best buds & met for Easter last year and…” 

Three steps to use this progression technique:

  1. Interrupt the panelists — sample as: “Sherri and Ann I need to pause us for a second…”
  2. Assert time constraint, underscoring audience’s need for the program to progress — sample as: “We have thoroughly explored our current question already; so now let’s move onto other important themes for our audience…”
  3. Pose your next question to a specific panelist to respond.

Potential concern (and solution) for your leadership as panel moderator:

Some panel moderators resist using this dialogue management approach; some have expressed concern it looks rude to interrupt panelist colleagues in the middle of an exchange. It is understandable to want to support your panelist voices – but not at the expense of your audience’s benefit (or the threat of audience disengagement).

Respectfulness can always attend your self-assertion when moderating.

Solution — Well before your panel event when you are planning with your speaker team, clarify how you see yourself as ultimate protector of audience experience. Make clear that your main interest in being their moderator is two-fold:

  • to honor their expertise at every turn but also,
  • to ensure the audience learns well-rounded, relevant insights which you as a group will ultimately finalize pre-event.

The audience’s welfare is the primary driver of engagement and line of questioning above all else. Emphasis on audience experience from the get-go makes a persuasive anchor for your leadership with your peers.

Image Diamonds in the Sky by Patrice-Photographiste, Creative Commons License

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