by Steve Adubato, PhD

Professionals are often asked to moderate or facilitate panel discussions, seminars or conferences. Usually the result is pretty deadly. Most of these sessions wind up with panelist after panelist droning on well beyond their allotted time and an audience looking as if they are about to fall asleep. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Most people lack moderating skills. It's not their fault, they haven't been trained. A successful panel discussion or seminar doesn't happen by osmosis. There are real skills involved.

I have facilitated hundreds of sessions. I've made all the mistakes, and hopefully learned from them. So, here's my top 10 list of tips to consider next time you're asked to play "Phil Donahue" in your work place.

1) Take Nothing for Granted. If you're introducing panelists, make sure their names and titles are correct. It's not good to be corrected on the spot. Make sure you know how to pronounce every name. Ask up front how you and the panelists will be heard. Will you be forced to speak from a podium? Can you walk around with a wireless microphone? Take nothing for granted.

2) Avoid Formal Intros. Avoid having panelists offer "formal" introductory remarks. It slows the program down, and creates a linear and predictable feel to the discussion. It also makes it much harder to "jump start" the audience when the time comes for them to be "interactive."

3) Begin With an Opening Question. If no formal intros, then what? The moderator should let every panelist know that his opening question will allow enough time to share their "big picture" view of the topic. By taking this approach, the moderator remains in control and is able to create a more interactive environment from the beginning.

4) Shorter is Better. Short, to the point questions are usually best. Longer questions require longer answers.

5) Follow-Up. One of my favorite moderating techniques is to "follow-up" a panelist's comments such quickies as; "Do you agree with your colleague?" "Give us an example." "What do you mean by that?" often elicit a more candid, spontaneous response.

6) Get Panelists to Talk to Each Other. Try to get panelists to talk directly to each other. This isn't easy because many experts are used to talking past fellow panelists and at the audience. An effective tool is to say to a panelist; "Mary, talk to Jim (fellow panelist). Tell him what he might be missing." This encourages her to talk directly to Jim, creating a more interactive dialogue.

7) Get the Audience Involved Early. If you're planning audience participation, wait no longer than 20 or 30 minutes before bringing in the audience. The longer you wait, the harder it is to get them involved.

8) Avoid Audience Members Lining Up at Microphones. This approach hinders "on the spot" follow-up from audience members who feel strongly about the topic and aren't next in line. An alternative is to have assistants moving around the audience looking for people who want to ask a question. Audience members should submit written questions to be read out loud. Organizers can select the good ones and give them to the moderator to use at his or her discretion.

9) Allow for Final Comments. Allow each panelist a minute or two to respond to a final "big picture" question. Some options: "Are you optimistic about the future?" Where do you think we will be in five years?" "What one point or theme should we take from this conference?"

10) Thank You. Make sure you thank each panelist by name and ask the audience to join you in expressing appreciation with their applause. Thank conference organizers and sponsors who helped make the event possible, and let everyone know how much you enjoyed moderating the discussion and appreciated their active participation.