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13 ground rules for moderators of effective panels at retreats

Some legal departments invite to their retreats two or three clients or two or three law firm partners to take part on a panel discussion. Usually, someone moderates the panel. These suggestions for those moderators come from my experience on many panels, both as moderator and as speaker.

  1. Send questions ahead of time. Panelists may never look at them, but some will and they will be better prepared. Besides, the questions equip you to lead the panelists and fill in the voids.

  2. Have a conference call beforehand with the panelists, or at least convene just before the session, to work out logistics such as introductions, mikes, how to handle questions, etc.

  3. Keep introductions to a minimum: “We have Chris from sales, Dale from marketing, and Bo from outreach.” The conference materials should have bios and you don’t need to read them outloud.

  4. Never ask a person a direct question unless you are sure they are comfortable answering it. My technique is generally to float the question to the entire panel. One rule of thumb is to think of questions that the audience would like to ask.

  5. Don’t insist that each person on the panel answer a question. Sometimes people have nothing valuable to add.

  6. Encourage people to disagree. It usually doesn’t happen, but the audience gets a jolt when someone says, “Actually, I take a different view ….”

  7. Moderators can make substantive comments if they have something to add.

  8. Take questions during the panelists’ remarks. People in the audience feel more engaged if they can raise their hand and make a comment or ask a question. To wait 50 minutes for the Q&A, which may evaporate if panels talk too much, is poor management.

  9. Always repeat questions from the audience if there is any chance that people in the back could not hear it. With a big group – more than 75 people – see if you can have some portable microphones or microphone on stands available for questions.

  10. Thank the first person who asks a question. Someone has to break the ice.

  11. If several people raise their hand at once, acknowledge them and set the order. “OK, first you, then you over there, and then the woman in the back.”

  12. Toward the end, say something like “We’ve got about three more minutes, so if you have any questions, let us know.” That way, everyone – panelists and participants – knows that the session is drawing to a close.

  13. Urge the panelists to stay around for a few minutes after the session ends. Often, people want to speak with them more privately than is possible during the plenary session.