How I moderate technical panels

23 Oct 2023 15:59 UTC

I love moderating panels. I think it resonates with my values as I'm letting folks to show their expertise instead of relying solely on my own.

I recently moderated a panel for DjangoCon 2023 and the response from the audience and the panelists was really well.

Jay Leading at Panel for DjangoConUS 2023 © 2023 Paolo Melchiorre CC BY-NC-SA

I'm not a pro but I do get asked to interview and lead panels more these days. Here are some things that I try to do with panels to make sure that they go smoothly. Please note that this is for tech panels and may not translate well to other industries.

Prior to the event

Do your research.

Your event starts in planning. Discover as much as possible about each of the panelists as it relates to the topic. Learn about previous experiences and perhaps check out where they may have spoken about the topic before.

Let them build your questions for you

Encourage conversation and be sure to ask what questions would they expect to be asked about. Aside from the general questions, be on the lookout for how they pose a question. This can often provide its own context and lead to better questions than just the "How do you think BLAH happens?"

Establish ground rules and communication

This is so important. Put everyone on the same footing. In this panel everyone is ranked the same. That means that the Junior Developer gets as much talking time as the CTO. Just like in a meeting the worst feeling a participant can have is why am I here.

Make sure panelist are comfortable with the technology being used. Address if the panel is being recorded. If the panel is virtual, ask if everyone has familiarity with the tools. If folks aren't comfortable be sure to try and setup a dry run if possible.

If you are introducing panelists (instead of them introducing themselves) be sure to have them write their bios. Be sure to give them a little guidance on this so that bios are consistent. If there is too much unbalance, have the bios written somewhere and have the panelists introduce themselves instead.

Don't plan for everyone to answer everything

One of the biggest mistakes is to try to come up with questions that everyone can answer. You're actually better off finding questions that a couple of panelists can answer really well. This allows everyone to share their expertise and it prevents one person from talking way too much and folks not getting to talk to points they really wanted to hit.

Meet before the event (Try within 24 hours)

Start this meeting a few minutes late. This will spark conversation with the panelists and help in creating a rapport between them. If the panelists feel a little awkward, try getting them to open up a little with small chat.

Start this meeting by reiterating the ground rules. Remind folks of your audience and their experience. Make sure to remind folks that acronyms and initialism should be spelled out. And ask if there should be any disclosures. If it is for one, make it for everyone.

Ensure that everyone knows everyone. Ask for folks to say their name, their pronouns, and where they are coming from. This will be helpful if they want to bounce a thought off of something previously said.

Set the expectations for the flow of the conversation. Let panelists know about how much time they should take on their intros and each question.

Take your compiled questions and go over them. While doing so, ask who absolutely wants to cover a topic. This will allow you to help set the pace. If there are a lot of folks wanting to contribute to the conversation, figure out a way to split the question into multiple questions that help with the flow.

Work to find some balance in the questions. If someone didn't contribute to the previous question let them start the next one. Wrap up the meeting with some logistics:

  • Ensure that everyone has their most important topics addressed
  • Ensure that everyone feels they are contributing to the conversation equally
  • Ensure that no one feels as if they are being singled out
  • Ask if folks are open to questions from the audience. Let them know that you will discourage questions that are directed to an individual.
  • Finally ask if anyone has concerns about the panel, being on it, or any of the questions.

Let folks know that they can reach out to you 1-on-1 if there are some concerns.

During the Event

At showtime, make sure you have everyone there and together if possible. As chairs are being setup gently remind folks of the order of questions and who's starting them.

Be calm, jovial, and most importantly in command

This is your show, the panelists are your guests. Serve them as a host. But as with all parties, make sure you are in control.

Start the panel by briefly introducing yourself and introducing the panel. If the panel agrees to introduce themselves

People like to laugh but not at their expense including your own. If you have a joke that may cross a line, probably don't.

Don't be aggressive or rude. Show empathy for your panelists and your audience.

Keep your eye on the clock

You know how many questions there are If a topic is running long, gently pull the conversation.

Your feedback is welcome but only a little

Your audience will want to know why the people on the panel are there, but also why you are the one asking the questions. You should have some context around the topic and you should share some of that context. Even if you are inexperienced, you can lean into that. Suggest that, like the audience, you're here to learn. Ask questions that the audience may have.

THAT BEING SAID, this is not about you. You talking means your panelists aren't. Limit your involvement to moving the conversation along.

Limit questions and suggest following up elsewhere

Go over the rules with the audience before taking questions. State that you will only have time for a few questions. And begin wrapping up with about 3 questions left.

Thank the audience for their questions and remind them that the conversation can continue in the hallway or on social media.

After the Event

Once the panel has concluded, quickly thank your panelists. They will be relieved and hopefully happy things went smoothly.

Later on try to collect feedback 1-on-1 with the panelists. A little removed from the event they may have thought of something that could have been done better. This will help you continue to improve your skills as a panel moderator.