Presentation Hack: Moderating & Participating in Panels


Panel presentations can be among the most interesting sessions for attendees, yet the most stressful to coordinate for organizers.

Aside from having watched/attended quite a few panel presentations, I have some experience at both the moderator and the panelist roles (<-- links to recent panels). Here are some hacks I've picked up on:

ROLES

As a moderator, your role is to...
  • provide or coordinate an introduction of each panelist;
  • openly state any agenda, intent, or purpose of the assembled panel;
  • act as glue - fill in gaps, connect panelists, & relate ideas;
  • call on the introverted, quiet panelists;
  • keep the strong personality panelists from taking over;
  • coordinate transitions between panelists & topics;
  • highlight similarities & differences among panelists' content; 
  • temper conflict, yet draw out competing perspectives;
  • make sure no panelist is seen as a winner or loser;
  • solicit audience questions & direct to appropriate panelists; 
  • provide a conclusion to the session.
As a panelist, your role is to...
  • go in with a neutral attitude (this is not a win-lose platform);
  • understand time constraints;
  • answer the questions asked of you;
  • provide your perspective, work, research, ideas;
  • build upon other panelists' content;
  • provide counter-ideas, without attacking panelists;
  • be available to audience/attendees afterwards (in-person; online).

Hayes as a moderator, with panel of police detectives & intelligence analysts

SELECTION OF PANELISTS

The makeup of panelists is an important aspect to a successful session. The number of panelists is something that depends on not only time or duration of the session, but the panelists' experiences and number of perspectives on the topic.
  • Two (2) panelists is a debate, where two (2) opposing viewpoints are fairly established;
  • Three (3) panelists means multiple perspectives and broader stakeholder representation;
  • More than five (5) panelists is an invitation for disaster, and surely requires a longer session.
Diversity matters. How interesting would a panel be if everyone had the same opinion, same experience, same idea? But what sort of diversity are we talking about?
  • Racial?
  • Gender?
  • Age?
  • Political?
  • Religious?
  • (Dis)ability?
  • Stakeholder group?
  • Industry?
  • Cognitive?
  • Experience?
Let's face it. No matter who you select to the panel, somebody will comment on a lack of diversity, based on their own standards. Accept it, but red-team your own pool of candidate panelists to limit the ways in which your panel's inevitable lack of diversity will be critiqued.


Hayes, as panelist among an arguably diverse group of white males

EXPECTATIONS & FORMATS

Moderators, organizers, and panelists should know what to expect from everyone else.
  • Who else is on the panel?
  • Who will introduce?
  • Format of questions?
  • Time limits?
  • Slides?
  • What's the expected dress code? (If you care!)
  • What will each person be highlighting?
  • What are the conflicts between panelists, perspectives, & ideas?
I don't suggest scripting the session, but there's benefit to even briefly establishing expectations and guidelines. In some sessions, panelists might even have been drafted to the panel to talk specifically about a project, program, or case study. Make sure they are prepared to discuss that in the best way possible. Also, blind-siding panelists with tough questions or topics is likely to backfire; be fair to them.
USE OF SLIDES

How about tricks with regards to projected slides to help a panel session go as smoothly as possible? If your venue allows for projected slides, consider these practices:
  • Have a self-playing looping intro deck, with slides containing information for quick research, followup, or social media tagging:
    • a professional photo of each panelist;
    • any pertinent affiliation or organization;
    • contact information;
    • social media accounts.
  • Use the same above panelist slides (but not self-playing!) during introductions of panelists. Formal intros can be done by either the moderator, or by the panelists themselves. If by the moderator, include a brief reason why they are on the panel.
  • If you allow for panelists to use slides, be sure ALL panelists are given the same opportunity. Level the playing field. Don't play favorites.
  • Collect panelists' slides beforehand. Combine them into a single deck, to avoid awkwardness of switching between multiple slide decks. (Skipping around looks better than closing out & opening up new "windows.") Consistent formatting of the slides brings an added element of professionalism to the session.
  • Don't allow a specific slide (especially if controversial) to monopolize the screen. Have a neutral slide that fills in gaps, such as:
    • a blank slide;
    • a session title slide;
    • a slide that contains photos & names of each panelist;
    • a logo of sponsoring/host organization;
    • a live-feed video of the current speaker, for large venues.
These above slide deck practices take some forethought, but reasonably take only a few minutes to assemble by anyone with working knowledge of the software.

Also with regards to slides, I always recommend having contingency plans in place for the worst of technical hiccups. Make sure your moderator and panelists are prepared to give that same passion "around a campfire" if the slide deck can't be shown. 

SUMMARY

Panel presentations can be stressful. They assemble different personalities, agendas, and perspectives. They require thoughtful recruitment/selection, moderation, and overall coordination. When done well, they provide your attendees with new ideas, additional viewpoints, and a fuller, more robust picture to make their own decisions!

I hope a few of the hacks I've outlined above help your next panel presentation go just a bit more smoothly than your last. 

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Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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