As we emerge from the summer holidays this is traditionally the start of the conference season. Online conferences and panels have their moments but I am probably not alone in looking forward to going ‘live’ again as we emerge from the pandemic.
It’s almost as if the enforced stay away has allowed people to take a step back and figure out the things they loved and hated about these types of event. One of the ‘pet hates’ to emerge from these discussions has been that of hosts/moderators who do a poor job of managing conference panels.
Panels are popular for good reason, as assembling a range of experts in the same place can provide fascinating insights for the audience. However, these occasions can sometimes fall rather flat and the cause, more often than not, is a lack of management. On these occasions, a conference panel host fawns over the celebrity guest (‘celebrity’ is status is relative within specific sectors of course), projects a chummy bonhomie that suggests the host would rather be hobnobbing in the bar, or a exudes a sense of indifference that suggests the host said ‘ok, I suppose I could do it…’
On such occasions, the result can be anti-climactic; an experience that falls short of the sum of its parts. In contrast, a good host adds tremendous value. How?
The Set Up
The best moderators will do their homework. This means that they will have rehearsed! They will have researched the background of the panelists or conference speakers and will be looking for ways to make a connection. This starts with a pre-event introduction to put speakers at ease and an ability to elicit relevant themes and experiences that will enhance the audience’s engagement.
A good panel moderator or conference host is like a good referee. They have the ability to blow the whistle whenever they want, but they prefer to let the game run its course for the benefit of everyone involved. They will know when to let the conversation flow, but also be ready to close down the bores and tactically move on the wafflers, the self-important (or the politicians spouting party lines).
They will do this firmly but seamlessly, without appearing to be rude or offensive. If the panel is going well, they will carry the atmosphere (‘bigging up’ the importance of both topic and speaker). If it is going badly they will be able to intercede and subtly suggest a change of direction to win back the audience.
Q & A Management
The final section of most panel discussions is the ‘unscripted’ bit, where the audience gets to wade in. With no filter, questions tend to range from the good/pertinent/relevant to the bad/confused/self-interested. A good host will be able to deal with each on an equal footing.
As a rule, the minority will ask a question, but the majority will give a speech. Sometimes a speech is necessary for context (particularly in academia), but often it is the product of an opinion. A great host will deal with this at the start by laying down a marker such as, “Please keep your questions short as we have a limited amount of time to make the most of our invited panel. We love to hear opinions, but perhaps we could keep those for discussion in the break.”
A good host will be mindful of all participants too. There is usually one member who attracts more questions than the others and the diligent host will be ready to chip in to save the blushes of an unpopular panelist (“I have a question for Pete, but before I take up his time, does anyone else have a question for him?”
A bad host lets the session fizzle, leaving the audience unsure if it has ended or not. A good host will always end on a high, making the audience feel as if their time has been well rewarded. And let’s not forget the panelists either. They have also given up their time and given away some free knowledge and a good panelist will have also put in some work. They need to feel appreciated too, or else they won’t be so keen to rush back when you invite them again…