Moderating Online Panels — Ideas and Resources

Moderating Online Panels

Last week I immensely enjoyed participating in a two-hour Zoom brain trust on moderating online panels. So good, it should be shared with a wider audience. So here’s a treasury of good ideas and resources we uncovered.

Huge thanks to the conveners and leaders: my friend, team performance and facilitation expert Kristin Arnold, and corporate innovation leader Scott Kirsner.

As you’d expect if you know these folks, the session was very well organized and facilitated. No mean task for a vocal group of 28!

The agenda

Thank you Scott & Kristin for providing an agenda and (pretty closely) sticking to it! Here it is.

15 mins: Who’s here; what sort of moderating have you been doing?

5 mins: Scott shares some recent learnings from virtual events.

10 mins: Kristin shares some recent learnings from virtual events, and a quick overview of what’s in her book.

20 mins: Breakouts (in groups of 4). What are 1-2 of your online moderating pro tips? Capture these on a shared doc (Slido).

10 mins: How did that go? Report back and bio break.

30 mins: Is panel prep different in the virtual world? Speaker recruiting? Tools and techniques for engaging the audience. Debates on burning questions (like chat or no chat, prep call or no prep call, right length.)

30 mins: Additional Q&A and discussion time (if needed).

Acknowledgements

I usually put these at the end, but because this post incorporates large, sometimes verbatim, chunks of Kristin Arnold’s excellent session notes I want to give her full co-author credit. Any errors and omissions are mine. Kristin’s name appears many times in what follows; some of the comments are hers, some are her notes on what others said.

While I’m mentioning Kristin, the best resources I know on becoming a first-rate panel moderator are her panel-focused website and short but packed book Powerful Panels. Visit the former and buy the latter!

And now the ideas…

Some of what follows is verbatim; some is edited by me slightly. Editorial additions/comments are shown in red. When the contributor is known, I’ve added their name (with a link the first time they’re mentioned).

Pre-event calls with panelists

There are two kinds of pre-event calls, though these categories can blur, and might be covered in a single call:

  • Connecting with panelists. This includes getting to know them, moderator education, defining panel and panelist scope, discussing potential topics and issues
  • Prep/production calls. This includes technical run-throughs.

“I call it a ‘production call like you would have if you were going to be on The View or Live with Kelly and Ryan



.”
Glenn Thayer

Moderating Online PanelsScott Kirsner‘s take

Pre-record panelists?

Restrict prerecorded segments to 5 minutes or less. —Adrian Segar

I think pre-recorded lessens the authenticity of the event



. —Kelley Kassa

Pre-record sponsor remarks, then the moderator manages the time of everyone else. —Glenn Thayer

What about pre-recorded pitchfests with live founder for Q&A?  I’m running a pitchfest tonight… We pre-recorded the pitches (they’re two minutes long). —Glenn Thayer

Virtual Emcee (MC)

A virtual MC is a MUST HAVE. —Thom Singer

Agree, but MC should be more than security blanket. —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

For sure, I help drive the attendee experience and engagement and deliver on the networking value of the virtual event. Much more than a security blanket. —Sarah Michel

Breakouts

We always assign a breakout room “table captain” pre-hand for who will moderate the breakout room. —Raza Shaikh

Zoom now has the feature to set a room topic too. —Kristin Arnold [I think you’re referring to Zoom Rooms, not Zoom Meetings. The latter has always allowed you to rename breakout rooms to a topic, issue, or group as desired.] • However, EVERYONE in the zoom room must have the latest version of Zoom downloaded or they won’t see the room options/topics. —Sarah Michel

At what audience size do you find that “all mics open” breaks down? —Andrew Lee Rubinger • Haven’t found a max yet. Did it up to 150



. —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Integrate breakouts – put a panelist in each of the breakout rooms. —Kristin Arnold

On “intentionality”: I determine the story arc I want told in the session. It’s like a jazz performance – it’s all improv, but there are waypoints to hit. —Andrew Lee Rubinger

IME, well-designed problem solver panels are great and audiences love them. —Adrian Segar

To help ensure that participants know what to do in breakouts, when the breakout rooms are open, message them with instructions, time available, etc. Have this prewritten elsewhere, so it can be efficiently pasted into the platform. —Kristin Arnold

Preparation

Do your research before you talk to the panelists. —Kristin Arnold

Curiosity is key. —Adrian Segar

Record prep call – use those recorded snippets for social media marketing for live event! —Kristin Arnold [Love this!]

Goal of pre-call that they feel comfortable enough that they could mock me.



 —Kristin Arnold

What questions, issues, what are you hoping to get out of this session at the beginning in the chat



? —Kristin Arnold

Know your moderator style. —Kristin Arnold

If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. —Daniel Seewald

General panel wisdom

Pre-empt attendee objections. For example, reduce fears about being in breakout rooms with strangers. —Demoed by Scott Kirsner during our session

Engaging the audience is not the same as involving the audience (giving them a task to do).



 —Kristin Arnold

Ensure your audience knows you care…AND your panelist knows you care. Watched a Comicon panel with Charlize Theron. Initially, she wasn’t engaged. Once the moderator asked questions that really showed she did her homework, she literally leaned in. —Kristin Arnold

I love completely crowdsourcing the panel…



 —Kristin Arnold [I often do this. See How a Fishbowl Sandwich Can Really Get Your Attendees Talking for more information.]

The best and most engaging moderated event I’ve seen was a workshop on “visual thinking strategies” at Innovation Leader’s Impact conference, where the moderator of the discussion spent about 45 min having a group discussion about a Picasso painting. She just asked questions about what we saw and what we thought those symbols meant. It was genuinely like being in school — and I think that unusual dynamic made people excited. Then, after that discussion, she shifted to talking about how that could apply to business/corporate settings, and many participants said they were going to integrate what they learned in that session that day.


 Lilly Milman

Use shared documents to seek feedback and capture insights from large groups. —Anonymous [During the session we used Slido to capture insights.]

Use object voting. For example: “If you agree, hold up something in your office that’s blue. Neutral or undecided, yellow. Disagree, red.” —Kristin Arnold

Interaction with panelists

Be about something, have a position, be honest about it. Push up against the walls.  Be kind. —Kristin Arnold

Have the panelist give us a tour, give a demo, go get an object (from a trip you have been on).



 —Kristin Arnold

Give panelists an object and ask them to provide a greater meaning to it.



 —Kristin Arnold

Coach your panelists on how to use the camera and speak authentically



. —Kristin Arnold





To share the questions with the panelists or not?

I almost always share prep questions with my panelists. Mostly because my panelists are tech people and not always the best speakers



. —Kelley Kassa

Provide a loose framework of where we want to go….some potential questions.  Any specific questions that need some vetting… —Kristin Arnold

I always try to email topics with the caveat that we’ll ask follow-ups and make it conversational



.Kaitlin Milliken

I like giving the first question so they will be comfortable AND the last question, that can be recorded and edited into a social media snack. —Kristin Arnold

You have to really listen to what your panelists are saying…and make decisions on what to probe further



. —Kristin Arnold

Ask panelists to bring one question to the panel to ask each other. —Kristin Arnold





Design for the audience & connections

There is NO panel without an audience. —Sarah Michel

In the midst of this global pandemic, people are attending virtual events seeking meaningful connections. We must design panels for that



. —Sarah Michel

The moderator is a champion for the audience. Everything has to flow from the audience. How does this make them better people? —Kristin Arnold

IME, audiences love well-designed problem solver panels. —Adrian Segar

Interview the audience before it starts



. —Kristin Arnold

Content is not king…it’s context and connections



. —Kristin Arnold

Drive to action…run a poll – who do you want to follow up with? —Anonymous





Platform

Get to know the functionality of platforms. Offer alternatives. —Kristin Arnold

Use an online poll to start the session. —Anonymous

Leverage chat. It’s gold.  Be on chat early and ask the audience to answer a question. Keep the chat open afterwards. I have a love/hate relationship with chat as neuroscience says that we aren’t focused on the conversation



. —Anonymous

Casual or Formal?

There is a whole business of a production studio in a box that gets sent to a panelist… —Anonymous

Some corporations don’t want casual they want big production. —Anonymous

I’ve gotten the box sent to me for an event. Lots of rehearsals too. —Anonymous

I ask my clients what backgrounds/level of production they want… —Anonymous

More hybrid meetings in future

Small in-person studio audience and a much larger virtual. Curate the studio audience… —Sarah Michel

More ideas from breakouts via Slido

Love asking panel members (or speakers) to change their backgrounds when you want to shift the energy or when you go to live Q&A, etc.

Set up a shared “group notes” document where people can contribute their notes from the panel. You can even give a prize for best note-taker at the event.

Whatever goes wrong with A/V last time won’t happen next time…relax over technical glitches. They are bound to happen.

Conversations don’t have scripts. There’s a road map of where I want to go but need to go with the conversations.

When clients are technologically not especially comfortable, ask for ONE thing to do vs. the world of possibilities



.

Don’t tell your clients everything you will be doing…as they will defend/say no.

Sometimes, a heads up might be appropriate so they aren’t thrown off



.

Ask panelists to stay for networking time between sessions. That way, the audience can meet them and have one on one conversations.

Have panelists ask each other questions – they usually have great questions for each other.

Fireside chats…work with speaker to cut into small pieces



.

Every 6-10 minutes switch gears, do something different



.

If an online gathering has less than 20 people, consider starting with introductions. Moderator calls on each name: 15 seconds maximum.

If you’re not a subject matter expert, ask panelists in prep calls: What matters most right now?

What would you tell me about in an elevator?

Put a pillow in your lap if you have a little sound echo in your room



.

When there’s content that is very technical in nature, ask questions like “please explain X as if you’re talking to someone completely unfamiliar with the topic”. [Me: I often open by stating that I know less about the panel topic than anyone else in the room—but I do know how to moderate panels!]

Be punchy, concise. Less is more. Provide a digestible premise that people are interested in.

Pre-record segments – edit down into more focused conversation. Or cut at key points and stop to interact



.

Use panelists as priming for large group discussions. [See my book “Event Crowdsourcing” and these articles “How a fishbowl sandwich can really get your attendees talking” and “The best way to hold a discussion online“]

To run fishbowl discussions on Zoom, have everyone turn their camera off until they have something to say. When they turn their camera on, they float to top of Gallery View 



That makes it easy for the moderator (whose camera is always on) to see who wants to talk.



 [See third link above.]

Use Zoom breakout rooms for “hallway” conversations after a panel. Put the panelists into one of those rooms after the panel is over so people can “meet” them. [Also consider using online social platforms for breaks and socials.]

Give frequent, small assignments: e.g. write down your biggest challenge. Use that as a start to the conversation.

When you do an A/V check, make sure panelists use the same equipment and time of day!

On Zoom train and teach all people to use the blue hand raise button instead of physically raising the hand



. [Depends on group size; I prefer human hand raising if the group is viewable on one screen in Gallery view.]

Ask everyone to keep their camera on as a way of showing respect and being present.

Have a 2nd device ready…like your phone…in case of wifi or Zoom problems.

Pre-record sponsor segments.

Put into chat what you want attendees to do!

Ask people to talk about one favorite object from a trip.

Practice as much as you can and prep for props/interactive elements.

Using the visuals and doing things like physically leaning in can engage people and create intimacy.

Think about the audience first.

Resources

How to touch people when your event is online —Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Love Mural, having a quick and easy task to begin with to get everyone up to speed helps.Caitlin Harper [I prefer Miro.]

Use a visual notetaker [aka graphic recorder]! —Caitlin Harper

If you wanna hear about Kristin’s brilliance with the CAPS conference last week…. we interviewed her today on Webinar Talk Show about all their ideas and how they pulled it off. 35-minute interview. Watch it…cuz she had soooo many good points about being engaging. —Thom Singer

Slido for polling and capturing participant ideas/questions/etc.

If you’d like to see what a business partner and I started for people like me who want to PRESENT rather than PRODUCE, visit livestream-denver.com. This is a work in progress and not a sales pitch as we work almost exclusively with clients in the Denver area.Mark Sanborn

How a fishbowl sandwich can really get your attendees talking —Adrian Segar

The best way to hold a discussion online —Adrian Segar

Anything you want to add, correct or, disagree with in this bounty of advice on moderating online panels? Share in the comments below!

Ask Me Anything About Conference Panels—Annotated Video

I guarantee you will learn many new great ideas about conference panels from this Blab of my Thursday chat with the wonderful Kristin Arnold. I’ve annotated it so you can jump to the good bits . (But it’s pretty much all good bits, so you may find yourself watching the whole thing. Scroll down the whole list; there are many advice gems, excellent stories and parables, folks show up at our homes, Kristin sings, etc.!) With many thanks to Kristin and our viewers (especially Kiki L’Italien who contributed mightily) I now offer you the AMA About Conference Panels annotated time-line.

[Before I turned on recording] We talked about: what panels are and aren’t; the jobs of a moderator; panel design issues; some panel formats; and our favorite panel size (Kristin and I agree on 3).

[0:00] Types of moderator questions.

[1:30] Using sli.do to crowdsource audience questions.

[2:40] Panel moderator toolboxes. One of Kristin’s favorite tools: The Newlywed Game. “What word pops into your mind when you think of [panel topic]?”

[4:30] Audience interaction, bringing audience members up to have a conversation; The Empty Chair.

[6:00] Preparing panelists for the panel.

[9:10] Other kinds of panel formats: Hot Seat, controversial topics.

[12:00] Continuum/human spectrograms/body voting and how to incorporate into panels.

[13:50] Panelist selection.

[14:40] Asking panelists for three messages.

[16:30] How the quality of a moderator affects the entire panel.

[17:30] More on choosing panelists.

[18:30] How to provoke memorable moments during panels; Kristin gives two examples involving “bacon” and “flaw-some“.

[20:30] Panelist homework. Memorable phrases: “The phrase that pays“; Sally Hogshead example.

[23:00] Panelists asking for help. Making them look good.

[24:10] Warming up the audience. The fishbowl sandwich: using pair-share as a fishbowl opener.

[25:30] Other ways to warm up an audience: pre-panel mingling, questions on the wall, striking room sets.

[26:30] Meetings in the round.

[28:00] Kristin’s book “Powerful Panels“, plus a new book she’s writing.

[29:00] Pre-panel preparation—things to do when you arrive at the venue.

[30:00] Considerations when the moderator is in the audience.

[31:00] Panelist chairs: favorite types and a clever thing to do to make panelists feel really special.

[32:50] Where should the moderator be during the panel? Lots of options and details.

[36:20] A story about seating dynamics from the late, great moderator Warren Evans.

[37:50] The moderator as consultant.

[38:40] Goldilocks chairs.

[39:40] Adrian explains the three things you need to know to set chairs optimally.

[41:00] “Stop letting the room set being decided for you,” says Adrian, while Kristin sees herself as more of a suggester.

[44:40] When being prescriptive about what you need is the way to go.

[46:30] Ideas about using screens at panel sessions.

[49:00] The UPS truck arrives at Adrian’s office door!

[50:00] Using talk show formats for panels: e.g. Sellin’ with Ellen (complete with blond wig.)

[52:20] Kristin’s gardener arrives!

[53:40] American Idol panel format.

[55:20] Oprah panel format.

[55:50] Control of panels; using Catchbox.

[56:20] Ground rules for the audience.

[59:10] What to say and do to get concise audience comments.

[1:00:00] A sad but informative story about a panelist who insisted on keeping talking.

[1:03:20] The Lone Ranger Fantasy.

[1:04:00] The moderator’s job, when done well, is pretty thankless.

[1:05:30] How you know if a panel is good. (Features mind meld between Kristin & Adrian!)

[1:06:10] The end of the fishbowl sandwich.

[1:07:40] Room set limitations caused by need to turn the room.

[1:10:00] Language: ground rules vs covenant; “Can we agree on a few things?”; standing to indicate agreement.

[1:13:00] You can’t please everyone.

[1:14:20] Kristin breaks into song!

[1:15:00] Non-obvious benefits obtained when you deal with an audience’s top issues.

[1:15:50] Why you should consider responding to unanswered attendee questions after the panel is over.

[1:16:40] The value (or lack of value) of evaluations.

[1:18:00] Following up on attendee commitments.

[1:20:00] Immediate evaluations don’t tell you anything about long term attendee change.

[1:21:10] “Panels are like a Wizard of Oz moment.”

[1:22:30] “Panels reframe the conversation in your head.

[1:25:00] Kristin’s process that quickly captures her learning and future goals; her continuous improvement binder.

[1:26:40] Closing thoughts on the importance of panels, and goodbye.

Ask Me Anything About Conference Panels — Thursday, July 21, 4-6 pm EDT Blab!

ephh AMA ABout Conference PanelsDo you dread having to listen to one more boring panel? Have you been asked be a panel moderate or panelist, and wonder what to do? Do you want to learn how to make conference panels much, much better?

Then we’ve got a Blab for you!

After the success of our Ask Me Anything About Event Production Blab, I’m happy to announce we are running an Ask Me Anything About Conference Panels Blab this Thursday, 4 – 6 pm EDT on my weekly #Eventprofs Happy Hour (#ephh) with special guest Kristin Arnold.

Hailed by MeetingsNet as the “Panel Improvement Evangelist”, Kristin is on a crusade to make ALL panel discussions more lively and informative. She’s the author of Powerful Panels: A Step-By-Step Guide to Moderating a Lively and Informative Panel Discussion at Meetings, Conference and Conventions, and has been moderating panel discussions for over twenty years. Among her other talents, Kristin has presented to over half a million people around the world, and retired from the US Coast Guard Reserves in 2002 as a Lieutenant Commander! Learn more about Kristin here.

Kristin & I have more than a few opinions on conference panels. But we want yours too! Join the Blab at any time to ask questions, share your thoughts—and I might invite you to join us on the video stream. Expect a lively discussion and a lot of good information and ideas!

To be reminded when the Blab begins, go here and click Subscribe. The same URL will take you to the Blab once we’re live.

Never joined a Blab before? Here’s a good introductory Blab tutorial. Kristin & I look forward to your joining us on Thursday!

Panels as if the audience mattered

 

create amazing panelsYes, it’s possible to create amazing panels!

I’m in San Antonio, Texas, having just run two 90-minute “panels” at a national association leadership conference. I say “panels” because at both sessions, the three “panelists” presented for less than five minutes. Yet after both sessions, participants stayed in the room talking in small groups for a long time. That’s one of my favorite signs that a session has successfully built and supported learning, connection, and engagement.

You may be wondering how to effectively structure a panel where the panelists don’t necessarily dominate the proceedings. How can we let attendees contribute and steer content and discussion in the ways they want and need? There’s no one “best” way to do this of course, but here’s the format I used for these two particular sessions.

Session  goals

Each session was designed to discover and meet wants and needs of the executive officers and volunteers of the association’s regional chapters’ members in an area of special interest. The first session focused on a key fund-raising event used by all of the participants. The second covered the more general topic of chapter fundraising and sponsorship.

Room set

Room set has a huge effect on the dynamics of a session. Previous sessions in our room had used head tables with table mikes and straight row theater seating (ugh; well, at least it was set to the long edge of the thin room.) I had the tables removed, the mikes replaced with hand mikes, and the chairs set to curved rows. We included plenty of aisles so that anyone could easily get to the front to speak (see below).

Welcome and a fishbowl sandwich

After a brief welcome and overview, I began a four-chair fishbowl sandwich format, which turns every attendee into a participant right at the start, and ensures that they end participating too. This format is my favorite way to create amazing panels. Fishbowl allows control over who is speaking by having them move to a chair at the front of the room. Check the link for a description of this simple but effective way to bring participation into a “panel”.

Body voting

Next, I used body voting, to give participants relevant information about who else was in the room. For example, I had everyone line up in order of chapter size, so people could:

  • discover where they fit in the range of chapters present (from 80 to 2,600 members);
  • meet participants whose chapters were similar in size to their own; and
  • give everyone a sense of the distribution of chapter sizes represented.

Additional body votes uncovered information about:

  • revenue contributions from dues, events, and sponsorship;
  • promotional modalities used;
  • member fees; and
  • other issues related to the session topic.

I also gave participants the opportunity to ask for additional information about their peers in the room. This is another powerful way for participants to discover early on that they can determine what happens during their time together. I used appropriate participatory voting techniques (see also here, and here) to get answers to the multiple requests that were made.

Panelist time!

Several weeks before the conference, I scheduled separate 30-minute interviews with the six panelists to educate myself about the issues surrounding the session topics and to discover what they could bring to the sessions that would likely be interesting and useful for their audience. After the interviews were complete, I reviewed our conversations and determined that each panelist could share the core of their contributions in five minutes. So I asked each panelist to prepare a five-minute (maximum!) talk that covered the main points they wanted to make.

During the first session I brought up the panelists to the front of the room individually. As each panelist gave their talk, I allowed questions from the audience, and, as I should have expected, each panelist’s five minutes expanded (by a few minutes) as they responded to the questions. So for the second session, I tried something different. All three panelists sat together with me, and I asked the audience to hold questions until all three had finished. Each panelist gave a five-minute presentation, and then I facilitated the questions that followed.

In my opinion, having only one panelist at the front of the room at a time creates a more dynamic experience. But on balance, I think the second approach worked better as there was some overlap between what the panelists shared, and when questions ended there was a more natural segue to the next segment of the session.

Fishbowl

At this point we switched to a fishbowl format. I had the panelists return to front row audience chairs, from where they could easily return to the “speaking” chairs. (They were frequent contributors to the discussions that followed.) I identified some hot issues, and listed them for participants. I then invited anyone to sit in one of the three empty front-of-the-room chairs next to me to share their innovations, solutions, thoughts, questions, and concerns. Anyone wishing to respond or discuss joined our set of chairs and I facilitated the resulting flow of conversation. Some of the themes I suggested were discussed. But a significant portion of the discussion in both sessions concentrated on areas that none of my panelists had predicted.

The capability of fishbowl process to adapt to whatever participants actually want to talk about is one of its most attractive and powerful features. If I had used a conventional panel for either session, much more time would have been spent on topics that were not what the audience most wanted to learn about, and unexpected interests would have been relegated to closing Q&A.

Consulting

During my opening overview of the format, I explained that we might have time for some consulting on a participant’s problem towards the end of the session. We didn’t have time for this during the first session — given a break, we could have probably taken another hour exploring issues that had been raised — but we had a nice opportunity during the second session to consult on an issue for a relatively new executive officer.

Another option that I offered, which we didn’t end up exploring in either session, was to share lessons learned (aka “don’t do this!”) — a useful way to help peers avoid common mistakes.

Closing

With a few minutes remaining, I closed the fishbowl and asked participants to once again form pairs and share their takeaways from the session. The resulting hubbub continued long after the sessions were formally over, and I had to raise my voice to thank everyone for their contributions and declare the sessions complete.

When an audience collectively has significantly more experience and expertise than a few panelists — as was the case for these sessions (and a majority of the sessions I’ve attended during forty years of conferences) — well-facilitated formats like the one I’ve just described are far more valuable to participants than the conventional presentations and panels we’ve all suffered through over the years. Use them to create amazing panels, and your attendees will thank you!

Create amazing panels!

At the conference sessions I design and facilitate, everyone is “up there” instead of “down here.” Yours can be too! To learn how to build sessions that build and support learning, connection, and engagement, sign up for one of my North American or European workshops.

Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon displayed under license from The Cartoon Bank