Companies and associations big and small produce events for a variety of reasons, from generating leads and direct sales to educating their employees or membership. While a lot of attention is given to finding keynote speakers and other event details, panels often end up being an afterthought, featuring a mashup of sponsors, employees and executives that are frequently disjointed -- or just plain boring.
As someone who has been hired as a keynoter, master of ceremonies and panel moderator for numerous high-profile events -- companies and organizations ranging from Microsoft to the Chicago Cubs to the SBA and New York Times and more, you could say that I am biased. But I also am experienced and have seen the drawbacks from not having tight panels featured at your event.
Panels are typically either great or awful (and more often awful).
Panels can be a great way to break up speakers at an event, showcase a number of perspectives and provide real-world examples and case studies to attendees. However, panels need to be run like a lively talk show to be engaging; otherwise, they end up being a wasted opportunity -- and sometimes a total downer.
Panel moderators aren’t given enough thought or credit. It is much more difficult to run a panel than to be a participant on the panel sharing your domain expertise. Panel moderators are the ultimate multitaskers, making sure that the discussion is engaging, giving in-the-moment insights on key points that may have been missed by the audience and managing the time and participation of the members.
Professional moderators will help the flow, size and other parameters.
Professional moderators will help you to configure the right panel for the event. They will weigh in before the event on panel size (it is rarely a good idea to have more than four panelists) and topics to be covered to engage the audience. They will also cut down biographies and find interesting tidbits to pepper into the discussion. Additionally, they will give you other tips, like if you have women on your panel, be careful of stools that are difficult to sit on when you are wearing a skirt, or will point out if your panel diversity is lacking.
At the event, great moderators will make sure that the questions are compelling and delivered in a way that’s conversational and not just a lineup of people giving their responses one after another. A great moderator will help to keep the time (as events always have time issues) and make as-needed adjustments to the flow.
They will ensure that if some panelists are weaker in their responses, they are guided, interacted with, or less time is spent with them. And they will also ensure that “panel hogs” are kept in check by directing the discussion to other panelists. This is an in-the-moment skill that requires a lot of experience.
Find another role for sponsors and employees.
Often, panel moderation is left as a place for sponsors and employees to have a role. This is a mistake, unless those people happen to be excellent moderators. In my experience, I have seen exactly two sponsors/employees who were skilled at moderation, so the numbers are not on your side. Many times, sponsors and employees are nervous or read in a manner that makes it clear that they are reading, not trying to have a conversation.
If you need to find a place for sponsors and employees, make them panelists so that they can share their domain expertise. They will shine more in that role than trying to take on the complex job of making the panel look seamless. But beware of having too many sponsors or employees if they aren’t the best possible panelists to deliver the message. Delivering fantastic content and an overall engaging experience needs to be your top priority, so you may need to find other ways for sponsors to shine.
Professional moderators will also help prepare the panelists.
Panels run more smoothly when there has been some interaction and thought between the moderator and the panelists ahead of time. It helps the panelists be prepped with great material and ensures that not everyone is covering the same topic. It also makes clear who the moderator should talk to first on a given question and who perhaps they shouldn’t talk to at all.
Don’t forget domain expertise when needed.
If you are taking audience questions, a moderator can make sure that everyone heard the question and will direct it to the appropriate panelists so that they aren’t tripping over each other. Also, as many events are now using apps for Q&A, a great moderator becomes even more invaluable, as many people don’t write in complete sentences -- or even coherent thoughts. A moderator with domain expertise, especially in complicated industries, can decipher acronyms like I did at a recent financial services event and also know when they shouldn’t ask a question- or at least should repackage a question- that has the potential to be controversial, in conflict with a sponsor or that has some other issue.
If you want to produce the best event possible, make sure that your panels are at the same high level as the rest of your event with a professional moderator. As for pricing, that varies as much as master of ceremonies and keynote speaker role pricing goes, from a few thousand dollars well into the five figures. Pricing should take into consideration whether the moderator is running one or more panels, the amount of prep work required and if the panels are taking place on one day or over multiple days. Consider combining emcee and moderator duties if you want to get more value and save the cost of another plane ticket, but don’t let panels be an afterthought or a weak spot.