Monday, November 4, 2013

Seven Characteristics of a Great Panel Moderator

Last weekend Jan and I attended Magna cum Murder in Indianapolis. I found most of the panels well run and the panelists thoughtful and interesting. Two panels stuck out from the rest. One was extremely well moderated; the other, not so much.

Here are six things the exemplary moderator did well:

   1 .       Before the panel started, the moderator had clearly done his homework. He was familiar with each of the panelist’s writing. Before the conference he provided the panelists a list of areas he planned for them to discuss.
   2.       He began the discussion with a description of the panel and a very brief introduction of himself.
   3.       He provided a short introduction to each of the four panelists (the conference provided longer bios in the conference book).
   4.       He varied which panelist discussed each question first. His introduction of the topic often included specific reference to the panelist’s work (the advantage of homework).
   5.       He asked other panelists to comment on interesting observations one of them had made, often choosing a panelist with a different perspective (another advantage of doing his homework).
   6.       He never interjected himself into the conversations, except to provide transitions between panelists or to introduce a new topic for discussion.
   7.       He never provided his opinions, disagreed with the panelists, or offered elaboration on their answers.

The exemplary moderator acted as a lubricant for the discussion. He did his job so well, one of the panelists commented on it and audience gave the moderator an ovation. In contrast, the less-than-satisfactory moderator failed on a number of accounts.

   1.       The moderator surprised the panelists by asking them to introduce themselves, when the previously announced game plan had been for the moderator to make all the introductions.
   2.       The moderator’s introduction of himself lasted longer than the introduction of the panelists.
   3.       For each topic discussed, the moderator provided his own answer after the four panelists had talked, and used each answer to self-promote.
   4.       The moderator read each of ten items on a handout he had already provided the audience.
   5.       When it came time for questions from the floor, the moderator answered questions directly.

A moderator’s objective should be to make the panel run smoothly and help make the panelists look good. Solely based on their performance as moderators, I’ll be buying the first person’s newest mystery, and never buy the other moderator’s books, no matter how good they might be, based on their hijack of the panel. I suspect most of the audience feels the same way.

~ Jim


  1. Alas...self-promotion is almost always the end run at those events...sounds like you gleaned a bit of good info along the way though.

  2. Hey Tom -- well self-promotion is a necessity these days. However, on a panel you can promote your professionalism or try a less appealing approach. Fortunately, most of the Magna cum Murder panels and panelists were great.