Moderator: Moderate Thyself!

Last weekend I was at Malice Domestic, where I moderated a fun panel of paranormal writers. I love moderating and I’m pretty good at it, not least because it’s what I do for a living. In many ways, teaching at the university level, at least in the Humanities, consists of moderating giant discussions. So if you can moderate a class discussion involving 30+ people, moderating four people on a panel is child’s play.

That said, moderating is not easy. I’m lucky to have lots of experience in other types of moderating that I can apply to my panel moderation. I’ve also been in the audience for a lot of panels, not only for fiction conventions but for academic conferences. Through these experiences of moderating and watching moderation, I’ve picked up some valuable tips I thought I’d share with you. After all, moderating is a skill, it’s not just something you should jump into. Not least because if a panel isn’t that great, oftentimes (and sometimes unfairly) it’s the moderator who gets blamed. So here are some things to think about as you accept a position as a moderator:

1) Your Energy Defines the Space: For anyone with theater or classroom experience, the exact same actor-to-audience energy exchange that occurs during a performance occurs in moderating. Only it’s even more important for moderators to have a good energy, because they also have their panel to think of. In other words, a moderator’s energy will “infect” both the panel they’re working with and the audience, itself. Then, in that great reciprocal exchange actors understand, the audience feeds energy back to the panel and the moderator, thus creating an ideal synergy. What this means, as a moderator, is that your energy sets the tone: do not be too low key, but don’t be hyper, either. If you’re too low key, the panelists will respond in kind, giving out only a little energy to the audience. The audience, in turn, will not be able to work up much energy to return. Synergy will not be achieved.

On the other hand, if the moderator takes off like a rocket, I’ve seen many panelists react by trying to calm a hyper moderator’s energy, knowing they can’t keep up with it. So they end up as low key as they would have if their moderator had taken a Valium beforehand. Again, the audience has nothing to work with, plus they have the weird situation of an overly excited moderator and a dull panel, which makes the moderator appear definitely ineffective and possibly crazy.

2) You are NOT the Star:  This is the hardest thing for amateur moderators to overcome: the idea that the audience is NOT there to see them. Even if one does have fans in the audience, one signs a contract by agreeing to be the moderator that stipulates one takes the back seat. A moderator is there to facilitate the panelists discussion, and THAT IS ALL.

Now that I’ve said that, however, let me share the benefits of being the good moderator who sticks to the contract. If moderators do a great job, they come out looking like a star. Partially this is because there are so many bad moderators out there, but it’s also because people recognize a skilled moderation when they see one, and they respect the person who did a good job. After all, they’re there to see an interesting panel, and often it’s the MODERATOR WHO MAKES IT INTERESTING by asking good questions and raising the energy of the room. Obviously, panels sometimes have one or two “dud” panelists–usually people who won’t talk or who hog the microphone–but part of a good moderator’s job is to prod some decent responses out of the quiet ones and get the talkers to share their space. So we do have a lot of power to lead, as a moderator, and people respect when we get that done.

We also have a different format to show off our brilliance: by asking good questions, by summarizing responses in a way that sparkles, or by joking with the panelists in a way that doesn’t hog the spotlight. In other words, we actually get a lot of time to shine, as moderators, one just has to shine AS A MODERATOR rather than trying to shine as a panelist.

3) Let them Introduce Themselves: This is sort of a segue idea between 2 & 4, but I think it’s important enough to list on its own. I’ve seen a lot of moderators introduce the panelists themselves, and it’s a bad idea. I think part of the reason moderators do this is because they think it’s a way to have more of their own “air-time”–and it comes across that way. I sat in on a panel once where the moderator introduced every single person with at least five minutes of individual introduction. On the one hand, the woman was funny and energetic, and she obviously had done her research and enjoyed the authors’ works. On the other hand, no one was there to see her. So when the moderator finally said, “And now I’ll turn the panel over to our wonderful panelists,” the woman behind me mumbled, “it’s about time.” It’s not that the moderator wasn’t entertaining–she was! But she’d broken her contract by hogging the stage, and the audience was obviously (at least from where I was sitting) pretty pissed off about the fact.

Rule of thumb, then, is to let the people introduce themselves, and–even more importantly!–make a note for yourself where everyone is sitting. Then keep referring to this seating chart, even if you’re confident with who is sitting where. I’ve seen so many panels where the moderator flubs a name, and it’s always awkward, no matter how well they handle it or how gracious are the panelists. Just jot the names down in order of where everyone is sitting, and make yourself refer back to it.

4) Watch the Clock! Be sure to carry a watch or your phone with you, to check the time. If you’re like me and time sometimes gets away from you, set the timer for 15-20 minutes before the end of the session, to allow for questions. But don’t forget to set your phone to silent, especially if you’re using it as your watch.  The reason you want to be very careful to watch the time is so that you remember the following:

  • Save Time for Questions: Fans are often there to ask questions. But as the moderator, I may feel it’s okay not to get to questions, because I’ve done so much work preparing my own amazing talking points that I want to get through. To the audience member who came because they wanted to ask something specific, however, not making time for them seems incredibly rude.  In fact, thinking of yourself as a “host” or “hostess” is a great way to define your role as moderator. You’re there to make sure everyone has a good time and always has a metaphorical drink in their hand: time to talk about the panel theme, time for questions, and time for the space to promote.
  • Don’t Forget the Promo:  On that note, make sure you leave five minutes at the very end to let everyone say what their upcoming release will be. At the end of the day, no matter how interesting the panel is or how fun the convention is, the authors are there to sell books. Not to mention, this is a natural time, finally, to promote your own work. As the moderator, you should have the closing words, so it make sense that after all the other panelists have said what their upcoming release is, you share yours. But do not wax poetic–keep it simple. Then be sure to be gracious and thank the panel AND the audience. Lead all in a round of applause. Huzzah!

5) Hold a conversation: My final bit of advice, which will be the hardest for many to stomach and/or put into action, is to resist the urge to over-moderate. What I mean by over-moderation are any of the following activities: a flurry of emails in which you pester your panelists with questions, preparing a dozen questions you send to your panelists a month before the panel, insisting on meeting and/or talking to your panelists beforehand.

Now, these are all very common things for moderators to do, and some conventions encourage this behavior. The problem is, I’ve never seen any correlation between quality of panel and this form of “preparedness.” In fact, some of the worst panels I’ve seen have been moderated by people who were super prepared–but moderating isn’t really about being “prepared.” Think about the word, itself: it’s a noun that comes from a verb. Basically, then, it’s an action–we are moderators because we moderate, not because we think about moderating.

What happens when a moderator over-prepares can be one of two things: they a) inflate their role or b) they lead by a script. By inflating their role, I mean that they forget that the point of the panel is the panelists. We’re facilitators, as moderators, not the stars (see #2). I was just at a panel where the moderator had sent my friend that aformentioned flurry of emails (which my friend resented, being a busy woman with a lot of stuff on her plate already). The questions, however, my friend admitted were good. And come time for the panel, the moderator obviously thought they were good, too. Because she answered every single one, herself.

Don’t get me wrong: every once and a while, a moderator can insert something particularly clever he or she has come up with. But the moderator should not talk through 2/3rds of the panel, as this moderator did. And while her answers were clever and fun and she’d obviously thought long and hard about her questions, no one was there to see her, and the panelists weren’t there to be her wingmen as she talked. Meanwhile, there is nothing more painful than watching an hour of five bored or angry  authors flanking a blathering moderator.

As for leading by a script, this comes back to the idea of “conversation” that I started with. It’s great to have a question or two lined up. These should be used to:

  • begin with
  • fill any sudden gaps in conversation (often occurs when someone say something utterly batshit you can’t come back from)
  • hit on a major issue you think definitely needs to be discussed

But if you only have a few questions lined up, what do you talk about? The answer is easy: you talk about what the panelists are talking about. In other words, you actually listen to their responses. You note down anything they say of interest. And then you riff off those answers. Let’s say the theme of your panel is the use of the Paranormal in contemporary cozy mysteries and your kick off question is, “What do you think the paranormal adds to your own work?” Let’s say someone says something about how escapist the paranormal is, so it makes an already escapist genre even more escapist. That’s exactly what happened at my panel at Malice, and that comment fit in so well with my thoughts about the issue. So my follow up question was basically, “Is all of this entirely escapist? After all, look at Charlaine Harris’s use of the metaphor ‘coming out of the closet’ for her vampires. Through this metaphor, the whole book becomes an exploration of the idea of tolerance in our society. How do you think this idea of metaphor works in paranormals?” We had a rousing discussion, in which I continued to ask them questions based on their responses, taking moments to summarize what I’d heard and apply it to the next issue they’d inadvertently raised that I wanted to explore more.

Doing this means that the conversation was fresh. They weren’t reading off the responses they’d written a month ago, to the questions I’d sent a month ago. And if they said something fascinating, I could linger on that idea and explore it more, rather than ignoring such gems to move onto the next question I’d written a month ago.

On a Machiavellian note, I think this format also keeps the panelists on their toes. They’re responsible for some of the energy in that room as well, obviously, so you don’t want them staring at pre-prepared notes and reading their responses in dull voices. You want them paying attention and engaging with their fellows’ responses, and this helps keep them actively participating.

This is not to say one doesn’t prepare. I thought about the issue of the paranormal a lot since I learned I was moderating that panel, I read or at least skimmed over the books my panelists sent me, and I prepared those couple of kick-off questions. I also had a general idea of major themes I wanted to hit upon. And then I held a conversation, which everyone seemed to enjoy, at least from comments from both panelists and audience afterward.

So those are my tricks to moderating. I think most of being a good moderator is having the right mindset and acknowledging your true role. Doing so means that you can really shine as a moderator, a paradoxically bright spotlight. For if you do it well, people will really take note.

I hope these ideas help you go forth and moderate with more confidence and more panache. Do let me know if you have any questions.

Posted by Nicole Peeler

Author, Professor, Lover, Fighter

3 thoughts on “Moderator: Moderate Thyself!”

  1. Great tips! I love moderating, and I think right now I'm a really-good-but-not-great moderator, so I'm going to bookmark this link to help me get to there. It never occurred to me to let panelists introduce themselves, because it seemed like shirking. But what you said makes so much sense.

  2. I've seen some panelists introduce things very swiftly and well, so it's not a hard and fast rule never to introduce the panelists (as rules never are in my world). It's more that the temptation is so, well, tempting to use that intro time to show off. And then it gets long and dragged out and painful. I also think it's the ultimate "warm up" activity. We all know our own names, hopefully. 😉 So it gives panelists a chance to try out their vocal cords and sound off before even having to think, and for the painfully shy that can be helpful.

  3. Terrific tips. I really enjoyed watching you moderate this panel. You brought out the best in the panelists and let them shine, and in doing so, you shone pretty brightly yourself. I doubt anyone who saw that panel will forget you, even though you worked very hard to keep the focus on the panelists. People may not understand why this was a good panel, but they knew it was and you got the credit in their minds.

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