Tips and Tricks for Moderators

1. You are The Moderator. This is not a chore; it’s an opportunity. It’s a service. It’s an honour. It’s your chance to guide the ongoing conversation that’s been shaping the literary genres for decades. It’s your time to ask questions and get answers.

2. There are many kinds of moderation styles. Here are the two most popular ones:

  • Classical moderation: This is the most conventional way of moderating a panel. The moderator sees himself as a privileged witness to the panel, one that channels the conversation more than participate in it. This is moderation that “only” requires a few good questions, a light touch and an average sense of conversation. Given a sufficient number of interesting panellists, it’s difficult to mess up this kind of moderation.
  • Active moderation: This is when the moderator also becomes an explicit participant in the conversation. It requires more effort and more skill, because the moderator then needs to monitor his/her own part in the panel and make sure it’s not hogging the spotlight. Think of it as adding to the usual job of moderation.

3. As a moderator, you will serve three masters:

  • The audience, which wants the panel to be interesting.
  • The panellists, who want to make a good impression on the audience.
  • The program director, who wants the panel to end on time. (That means five minutes before the stated end of the panel; no exceptions!)

4. Here’s how to prepare for a panel:

  • Learn what you can about the subject. Maybe you’re already an expert, but a refresher can’t hurt. The more you know about your subject, the better the questions you’re going to ask.
  • Learn as much as you can about your panellists. Remember why they’re there; is it to promote their latest novel? Introduce themselves to a new crowd? Showboat a little?
  • Prepare a game plan: Take a sheet of paper, jot down the panel time, title, summary and panellists. Add a few questions. Write down interesting items in your panellists’ bibliography. Draft an opening statement and a pithy conclusion. Try to come up with one or two insights about your subject.
  • Try to meet with your panellists ahead of time. Give them a look at your questions so they can come up with half-clever answers. Try to give them a rough idea of where you want the panel to go.
  • Get there on time. Nobody cares about your excuses because nobody likes a late moderator. Just get there on time.

5. What to bring:

  • Your game plan sheet. If you don’t have one, bring a sheet of paper anyway.
  • A pen. Jot down notes, comments, upcoming questions that will pop in your head during the panel.
  • A watch. Remember; end your panel on time, five minutes early.

6. Here’s one way to structure a panel in four distinct phases:

  • Introduction. This portion is all about easing the participants and the audience into the subject being discussed. Introducing, maybe even explaining the subject is a good idea. Introducing the panellists is essential: If you have prepared biographies, use them. It’s generally a good practice to allow the participants to introduce themselves thanks to a short and pointed query about the subject. The introduction shouldn’t take much more than the first five minutes of the panel.
  • Development. Once the subject is introduced, it’s time to roll out the questions and let the participants strut their stuff. This is often the easiest part of the panel, as the discussion will often naturally flow from one subject to the next. Your challenges during this phase are twofold: First, you have to try to involve everyone in the discussion. Second, you have to smooth out the transitions between one theme to the other.
  • Discussion. With twenty minutes to go in the panel, this is when you open up the floor to the audience for questions and comments. As a moderator, your first priority is to see the raised hands and acknowledge them. If there are several hands, try to queue them up so that the persons trying to intervene know they’ve been noticed. (You can verbally acknowledge the first question, then nod at the next two and keep going like that.) Don’t be afraid to clearly state “time for two last questions” when your time starts running out. Allow for the possibility of continuing the discussion in the hallways after the panel.
  • Conclusion. Once you’re down to the last five minutes (reminder; that should be ten minutes before the slated end of the panel), it’s time to wrap everything up. Don’t be afraid to stop if you (or your participants) get a big laugh line very late in the panel: you will be unable to top that. A good way of concluding is to ask a last question to all participants to allow them a summation of the discussion or thought on the “next step” of the subject. Once the roundtable is over, you can cap up with a pithy observation and thank-yous to the audience.

7. No game plan ever survives contact with the actual panel. Once the conversation starts to flow, you will find that panellists will leapfrog over subjects, ignore some themes and open new areas of discussion. Without ditching your sheet completely (it should include plenty of good questions no matter what), don’t be a slave to it.

8. Remember why the panellists are on you panel. Keep in mind that they’re mostly engaged in a self-marketing activity. (And so could you be.) Flatter them. Ask them smart question about their current book, the one that’s available in the dealer’s room. Allow them to demonstrate to the audience why they’re such wonderful human beings and why everyone should buy their books. They’re the star of the show: not you!

9. Here are useful skills to develop as a moderator:

  • Projecting the image of a moderator: Yes, the self-effacing shtick is endearing if you’re Woody Allen. But few of us are Woody Allen. This is your panel, and you are The Moderator, damnit. Act like one.
  • The ability to self-censor stupid comments: Be clever, but not too clever. Be funny, but don’t audition for the local comedy club. The more you dare, the more you can fail. You are The Moderator, so be moderate in all things.
  • The ability to hold an hour’s worth of discussion in your head: The panel is a self-contained unit of information about a given subject, and your audience is likely to stick with you during the entire duration. So make an effort at establishing links between this and that, something said at the beginning of the panel and a late question. It makes the panel more cohesive, it leads to better questions and it allows participants to hone their point. Obviously, you can’t remember sixty minutes verbatim… so carry a pen with you and keep writing on that sheet of paper you brought.
  • How to be provocative without being a complete bastard: It’s okay to play the devil’s advocate. It’s not so okay to piss off the entire audience and ensure that the participants will never speak to you again.
  • A feel for the flow of conversation: When is it best to switch topics? When is it appropriate to go to the audience? When is someone just dying to bring something to the discussion? The basics of this can be stated in minutes, but will take years to master, young padawan.