Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moderators, skip the well-worn panel path with 14 creative themes and questions

Most panel moderators follow a tried-and-true approach--typically, one honed by watching others moderate panels. Sure, that way you and the speakers know what to expect. But too often, the result is a lackluster panel in which the discussion rarely takes off and goes someplace interesting.

Instead of following the well-worn paths to panel moderation, introduce creative themes and provocative questions to get your panelists off the beaten track and into creative discussions that will keep the audience buzzing for days to come:
  1. Instant hot seat, aka "better you than me:"  Have each panelist ask the next panelist a question they'd hate (or love, or fear) to have to answer themselves. Make sure each has had the chance to hear the others speak, first.
  2. What ifs:  Moderators can push envelopes with "what if" questions, taking panelists beyond their prepared remarks. "What if you had...." started sooner or later? Not doubted yourself? Won the lottery? Had no customers? Kept your job? Could only use one hand? Were trying to do this in 1985? Heard about a better option? Plenty of room here to get creative.
  3. Why nots? I sit through way too many panels where the speakers' broad statements aren't challenged--even gently. You can fix this by asking why, after a pronouncement, or even better, use "why not?" It's energizing and requires a good defense or explanation.
  4. Fill in the blanks: An antidote to long-winded, typical answers: Frame a moderator's question as a fill-in-the-blank that each panelist has to answer with one word, then make some remarks to tie them together or ask followup questions to draw them out.  "Fill in the blank: Right now, I'm looking for ________________" or "My least favorite project is ____________" and similar constructs can add spice and insight.
  5. Do's and don'ts: Create a panel of tipsters. Ask each panelist to share one "do" and one "don't" when it comes to the topic of the panel. Your audience will walk away with a handful of focused tips. Make it even better and demand that they offer different do's and don'ts -- no "what she said" offerings.
  6. Instant advisory panel: Got a panel of experts, each talking about lessons learned in achieving what they've done? Let them go through it, then ask each panelist to turn to her right and share one piece of advice with the panelist next to her. A variation: Tell a questioner asking for advice that she just got an instant advisory panel, and ask each speaker to advise her as if she were a peer. 
  7. I liked/I wish: A gentler way of examining what went wrong and right. Ask each speaker to evaluate an issue, event or lesson by sharing what "I liked" and what "I wish" had happened instead.
  8. My favorite mistake:  Go ahead, play some Sheryl Crow to introduce this one. I love gathering panels of wise folks to discuss "my favorite mistake." The rules: It must be a mistake you've made, not one you think someone else made, and you must explain why it's your favorite. This takes guts, but it results in gripping stories and is the perfect antidote to long war stories and self-congratulatory speaking.
  9. Myth-tery: Take the time to do some myth-busting, particularly if your panel's covering complex, controversial or challenging territory. Ask each panelist to share a myth and bust it effectively; set a time limit if you want to make it more challenging.
  10. Probe origins:  "What did you want to be when you started out in this field?" is a question that works well for both junior and senior practitioners in any profession, and might lead to intriguing perspectives. Ditto, "How much were you making when you first started out?" or "Who was your first customer ever?" or "What was your very first job?" And no, you needn't save these for career panels or job discussions.
  11. Little-known facts: Ask your panel to stick to the least-known, not the best-known, sources, gadgets, tools, tips and advice they use in their work. If you work this theme throughout the discussion, you've got a built-in set of self-introductions: Ask each speaker to begin by sharing a little-known fact about himself. Gets you and the audience right past the same old, same old.
  12. Ten-second rule: Ask each speaker to name as many items in one category as they can in ten seconds--and time them. You can ask them to name their inspirations, what they're grateful for, things they can't live without, what's on their wish list, and much more. If you want a concise panel, use this throughout, with breaks to let them expand.
  13. Tweetability:  Give the people things they can tweet. Ask speakers to come up with a summary of the topic in 140 characters. Ask them to come up with a hashtag for their most difficult experience or for this panel, based on the questions they've received. Ask them how they use Twitter.
  14. Turn the tables:  Let the panelists ask questions of the audience. A sure-fire attention getter--and one that will yield topics they can riff on. Or, start with the audience questions first, then have the panelists weigh in.
Some of these tactics can be worked into the moderation of any panel. Others--like "my favorite mistake"--will work best if the speakers agree to them first and have time to think through their remarks. A word of caution for all moderators looking to use themes:  Think through whether you need to clue your speakers in early, particularly if your theme will dominate the proceedings. A speaker who's going to be asked to work entirely from audience questions or give her answers in 10-second bites should know that, so she doesn't overprepare.

Want more on moderating panels? Buy my ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels. Just $3.99 in all ebook formats.