How To Hack Yourself: Public Speaking Series

Public speaking masterclass: Everything in moderation

You’ve been asked to moderate a panel… what now?

Cassie Kozyrkov


When it comes to panels, everything tends to work out just fine — regardless of prep — if the moderator has the right skills. Hopefully you’ve already looked at “Top 10 panel disasters and how to avoid themso you know just how important your role is. Think of it as Part 1 of your guide, since you need to understand the disasters in order to prevent them. Here’s Part 2 to help you out.

I’m second from the left, next to Mike Reiner, a talented moderator who made this panel a great experience for everyone involved.

Moderation isn’t about proving how smart you are, it’s about facilitating conversation by asking open-ended questions when the conversation needs a nudge. The primary challenge is making sure the topics are exciting to all participants and that each panelist gets roughly as many speaking minutes as the others.

If the moderator is skilled, there’s nothing to worry about.

If you’re asked to serve as moderator, find a role model among your favorite dinner party hosts. Be witty, inject positivity when the atmosphere starts wilting, and make sure everyone is included. A happy panel with good flow where the moderator says nothing is a great panel. Don’t interject if everyone is having fun, sharing in the conversation, and teaching the audience something interesting.

The best reason for you to speak is to help the conversation along and give a voice to those who need your help. For example, if you have a non-native speaker on the panel, they might want to say something but need an extra moment to gather their words. Instead of letting them be trampled by the natives, watch their face and make some room for them in the conversation if they look like they’re eager to contribute. The same goes for folks with speech impediments or quiet manners. If your panelists are shy and reluctant to join the discussion, then you’ll need to put extra effort into making them look good and coaxing out their opinions. Knowing a bit about their backgrounds and making references to specifics in framing questions for them helps.

Find a role model among your favorite dinner party hosts.

Watch everyone carefully and read faces. If someone looks like they’re bursting to speak, help them out. If everyone looks uncomfortable with a topic, change it with a quip or question. Shut down the know-it-alls. Don’t judge or play favorites — if you tell one panelist they made a great comment, be sure to praise the others equally later.

If you take a look at the titles, you’ll see some very different industries and backgrounds here. You might feel nervous… until you notice the moderator’s credentials. We’re dealing with a pro among pros — it was a fabulous panel, and it would still have been even if we added a garden variety high school kid to the lineup.

You have a challenging hosting job, because the audience is also at your dinner party (but they’re too busy chewing to speak up, and that’s probably for the best). Be an advocate for them — if the discussion becomes too technical or boring, step in. If there’s jargon, help define terms or ask the panelists to do it. If a panelist is going off into the weeds, shut them down as gracefully as possible (you’re doing them an etiquette favor even if it doesn’t feel like that to them at the time).

If you’re most comfortable in environments where the bar for social graces is so low you trip over it on the way to the bathroom (*cough* engineering *cough, cough*) then serving as moderator might just be one of the hardest jobs you’ve ever had to do.

Whatever you do, don’t dominate the conversation!

Remember, everyone has something in common. If they’re invited to your dinner party, they deserve to be there and it’s your job to find that mutual comfort zone and gently nudge the conversation into the intersection of interest. Even if the panelists end up talking about things that have nothing to do with the title of the panel, the audience will likely enjoy the experience.

Here’s more great advice for moderators from Bethany Crystal (full article here):

  • Rule #1: It’s not about you.
  • Rule #2: It’s also not about them.
  • Rule #3: The first question is irrelevant. (The art is in the follow-ups.)
  • Rule #4: It’s not important for everybody to answer every question.
  • Rule #5: It is important to start and end on a high note.

Initial preparation — moderators

Before you meet in person, your focus will be learning about the panelists, giving them brainstorming prompts so they’re not caught off guard, and collecting information on what they care about. If you’re a newcomer to the mutual comfort zone topic, you also want to brush up on its jargon.

You might also want to make sure that your organizer knows their role, so consider forwarding them the organizer guide.

Prep phone calls aren’t my favorite because they’re worse than email/shared docs for initial prep (hard to schedule and awkward as a conference call) and worse than face-to-face meetings for final prep.

When I’m a moderator, my initial prep emails ask panelists to:

  • Prepare a 1–2 sentence short self-intro.
  • Let me know if there’s a topic that’s a must-have.
  • Let me know if there are talking points we must hit (in order of priority, since time is limited).
  • Share one piece of advice or nugget of wisdom that the audience can take home with them.
  • Come up with one question for another panelist. (Doing this in a round robin nudges each panelist to put a bit of effort into researching the others and discovering something interesting about them. You will be doing the asking on stage — there’s no need to mention who came up with the question. Just make sure that if it’s reasonable it gets asked.)

After you’ve received their responses, compile a list of themes. Based on these, draft some questions and prompts for the panelists. Ask if anything about the list makes them feel uncomfortable. Ask them if anything is missing. Adjust the list until everyone is happy with it, then throw it out of the window.

Well, sort of.

You’ll have it in front of you on stage in case the conversation loses its way and needs a reset, but you shouldn’t force the conversation back to the list. Let the panelists have fun within the bounds set by the list.

Your final prep will look a lot like the panelist face-to-face prep, with the added challenge of bearing the responsibility for the smoothing rough edges in the conversation.

Good luck!

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Bonus: A moderator’s secret weapons

1) For moderators who have difficulty not voicing their views

Sometimes, you’ll have a panelist say something that you think is bonkers and there’s no way you’ll let it go… but, alas, you must. If you were a panelist, you’d totally jump in and offer a lengthy perspective (until the moderator cuts you off, that is). But you’re not a panelist. What to do? If you have some agency in selecting your panelists, a good idea is to pick a champion: someone who shares your opinions. You can call on them to hold forth on your behalf.

2) For moderators who have too many panelists

Three panelists is plenty, four panelists is a challenge… and five+ is a nightmare. Here’s a good trick to have up your sleeve if you’ve been given more panelists you can handle or if your panelists are being taciturn: lightning round questions.

Have a list of fairly controversial opinion questions — for example, questions predicting the state of an industry/trend/tech/fashion 5 years into the future — which you ask panelists to answer by holding up a number of fingers, with 1 for strongly disagree and 5 for strongly agree. When two panelists give you dramatically different answers, you have your perfect opportunity to get them discussing their points of view (plus a graceful way of limiting the conversation to those with the most opposite views).

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Cassie Kozyrkov

Chief Decision Scientist, Google. ❤️ Stats, ML/AI, data, puns, art, theatre, decision science. All views are my own.