A panel discussion is a very important part of conferences. It offers different views on a topic put up for discussion. It also encourages interaction between panelists and the audience, giving the audience the opportunity to learn by asking questions and clarifications of points made. As a leader, the opportunity to sit on or moderate a panel will come at least once. This post is to provide some guidance on preparing to moderate a panel session.

First things first, it is important that you have a grasp of what the panel is going to discuss. You do not have to be an expert at the subject matter, however, you should be able to hold meaningful conversations about the subject you want to moderate. You should know enough to identify that something does not sound well and to suggest an alternative method of achieving a task.

Then, you need to prepare. There is a saying about he who fails to plan has planned to fail. You want to read various perspectives on what you are moderating on. Remember, you will speak with several panelists who may have different views on a topic. You want to be able to moderate them, know when they are going too far and if you need to give them more time to amplify a new view to the topic they are discussing. The audience too may ask questions that throw in a new light on the question. You do not want to be thrown off balance by such new views. Also, make sure to share your questions with the panelists at least a week before the panel session. This will help them prepare better.

Get to know the panelists. Moderating a panel session with people who you know is more comfortable than moderating with people you struggle to pronounce their names. Arrange to meet the panelists before you go on stage, read their publications or blogposts if they have any. If possible, sit with them, discuss the subject matter among other subjects. Most importantly, learn to pronounce their names rightly.

Share an agenda with the panelists way before the session. Let them know how long they have to answer a question. Discuss the signal you you will give to them if their time is up. Signals can be you raising your hands slightly so that they know that their time is up without the audience noticing. It could also be you interjecting them while they are making their point. Ensure your agenda has the space for opening statements by the panelists, questions and answers and closing statement by the panelists.

If you are at a physical conference, you want to ensure all of your panelists are backstage or at sight before you go on stage, You do not want to introduce a panelist and then get someone to go find them because they forgot they are supposed to be on your panel.

Start strong with a remarkable introduction of the subject matter. Give reasons why the subject matter is important and should be discussed.

Engage your audience right from the start, give them the impression that they and their views are very important during the session. if it is a virtual session, you could ask the audience to indicate what part of the world they are joining the session from. The moderator of a session I recently joined asked ‘Where are your feet currently on?’. We had several answers like ‘On my bed in Buenos Aires, Argentina’ or ‘In my garden in Lagos, Nigeria’.  In a physical meeting, a question such ‘What do you expect to get/ learn from this panel discussion?’ could set the pace.

Finally, do not take sides with the panelists. Remember that you could have panelists with opposing views. Your role is not to take sides but to be neutral. You want to ensure that the discussion flows and that the audience gets as much information as possible. Do not endorse a panelist’s view by saying words like ‘ Excellent, beautiful, awesome’ or any other word that makes one panelist feel their view is superior to that of another.

In a sequel blog post, I will share strategies to hosting virtual panel sessions, drawing references from my experience as a moderator of the Atlas Corps People Power Hour session which held on July 27th, 2020.

Till then, stay safe and keep impacting your world.

Kayode Yussuf is a Class 39 Atlas Corps fellow. He serves as ‘Global IT Fellow’ at Evidence Action, Washington DC.

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