How To Be A Model Moderator

Hi all! Stacey here with my buddy and fellow PubCrawler Stephanie Garber. There may come a time in your life where you will be asked to moderate a panel or facilitate a discussion. Here are our ten hot tips for moderating success.

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.

Swati Avasthi does a brilliant job moderating a panel at the Multnomah Library that includes myself, Tess Sharpe and Isabel Quintero.

Swati Avasthi does a brilliant job moderating a panel at the Multnomah Library that includes myself, Tess Sharpe and Isabel Quintero.

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?


5 Responses to How To Be A Model Moderator

  1. Mona AlvaradoFrazier Jun 8 2016 at 3:59 pm #

    If only every future moderator read your post. Especially #’s 6, 7, and 9.

    At the last AWP conference, there were two moderators (on YA panels) who thought the whole thing was their opportunity to try a stand-up comedy routine or hawk their own books, The poor panelists looked either pissed or miserable.

    • Stacey Jun 9 2016 at 2:15 am #

      Oh noo! That is awkward and cringeworthy. There’s definitely an art to moderating.

  2. Desiree B Jun 8 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    Great tips! I think it’s possible to repurpose some of them for interviewing authors.

    I haven’t seen a panel in person, but I’ve seen a few on YouTube and listened to some via podcasts. I think a “bad” thing for a moderator to do is to let one (or two) panelist hog the spotlight. I mean, this has to be embarrassing for the panelist who’s left out. Not to mention that it cheats the audience out of what that person might know.

    • Stacey Jun 9 2016 at 2:17 am #

      Oh yes, that is a great point. Moderators have to be firm but polite when a panelist begins to hog the panel, which can and does happen, esp when there are ‘shy’ or ‘polite’ panelists who don’t feel comfortable interrupting with their opinions. Agree that is frustrating for the audience who doesn’t get to hear every panelist’s comments.

  3. Bill Blume Jun 14 2016 at 5:57 am #

    Stacey, I’ve moderated dozens of panels for James River Writers during the past decade, and I couldn’t agree more with these. I’m very opposed to ever letting speakers introduce themselves. I believe the moderator surrenders control of the panel when they do that (and at the very start!). Questions that go down the entire line of the panel can be just as bad for similar reasons.

    I think the most challenging thing for a moderator is to politely cut off an attendee with a rambling question. I’ve not been above asking such a person, “Just what exactly is your question?” If the person is just rambling and trying to play expert on everyone else’s dime, I try take what they’re saying and twist it into a question I can toss to one of my speakers, cutting them off in the process.

    I believe the best moderators act as bodyguards for their panelists, protecting them from the audience and sometimes from the panelists themselves.

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