1. Read the panelists’ books. The best panels in my opinion are the ones in which the moderator asks questions tailored to the author’s works. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but at least be familiar with the book’s main ideas and stand out points. Don’t be afraid to ask your panelists’ publicists for books. It’s in the publishers’ interests for you to be informed about their author’s works. My secret weapon is to listen to the panelists’ audiobooks, when available. You can make your commute go by faster, and you can listen to them at 3x speed.
2. Send questions ahead of time. Some panelists can answer questions easily on the fly; others would rather visit the dentist than be unprepared. The more you can make your panelists comfortable, the easier time you will have facilitating a conversation.
3. Introduce your authors using the same tone and length. Often moderators will simply read an author’s bio for the introduction, but this invites problems. I recently participated in a panel where the moderator relied on our bios. My own is short and humorous, and doesn’t mention awards or distinctions, whereas the bio of the woman next to me mentioned every degree and award she had received. By contrast, I couldn’t help feeling like the village idiot. This might take a little work on your part to make your intros ‘match,’ but you’ll come across as more polished, and your authors will thank you.
(Note: I have encountered diva/divo panelists who want to be introduced a certain way. I tell them I will do my best, but make no promises. I firmly believe in treating every panelist with dignity and respect, and that means not putting one above the other).
I have spoken on panels where the moderator asks each author to introduce herself, which I find awkward and painful. Not everyone is comfortable talking about herself, and on the flip side, some authors can run at the mouth, viewing the intro as a way to self promote. You can avoid potential awkwardness by doing the honors.
4. Help your audience distinguish between panelists by presenting them as individuals. I have used labels such as, “a rising star,” “a thrilling new voice in contemporary fiction,” “a living legend,” “a NYT bestselling author.” Obviously, make sure your descriptions are complimentary.
5. Go with the flow. A recent panel I moderated featured two authors who were good friends and pros at public speaking. They had great chemistry, and meandered from topic to topic without much prompting from me. I had prepared questions in advance, but found myself needing to replace them with ones that were more natural to the conversation at hand. An additional challenge was to include the third panelist in the discussion as much as possible. This is where a good working knowledge of the authors and their books is essential, because sometimes you have to improvise, and the best way to improvise is to come prepared.
6. Resist letting authors read from their books. I personally find this a waste of time. The audience is there to learn something they can’t learn by merely picking up the book. Plus, not every author is good at, or comfortable with, reading out loud.
7. Remember, it’s not about you. As the moderator, your job is to guide conversations so that the panelists shine. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t bring yourself into the discussion by using examples from your own life to illustrate a particular question. And if you’re asking panelists individual questions, they love it when you’re able to sincerely mention how much something in their writing resonated with you.
8. The moderator sets the tone for the panel, so be personable and engaging. Think of yourself as the first sentence of a novel, the thing that pulls readers into the story. It’s the job of the moderator to engage the attention of every guest in the room.
9. Repeat questions asked by the audience. Just because you can hear a question doesn’t mean the entire room can hear it. Repeating the question also gives your panelists a little more time to think about their answers.
10. Try to have a little fun! Everyone appreciates humor, so if at all possible, weave some into your questions and your introductions—as long as your humor is respectful to the panelists.
In the comments, let us know if you’ve seen a good moderator recently. Why was s/he good? What things could the moderator have improved upon?