Sunday, October 25, 2009

Videoconferencing Best Practices: 12 Tips for Moderating a Panel Discussion

I recently posted two articles, 10 Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Tips and 7 Presentation Tips for Speakers, as part of a series of Videoconferencing Best Practices. This post expands on the role of the moderator of a panel discussion. The moderator facilitates the discussion on the program topic(s) between several speakers, provides order and continuity and acts as an advocate for the audience. The tips below were developed for moderators participating in a live videoconference broadcast and can be applied to any presentation or webcast.

1. The Intro/Setting the Tone
The moderator sets the tone for the program. The moderator is the host and opens the program, introduces the topic(s), states the main ideas, reviews the agenda, objectives, key points, format of program (i.e. panel discussion with time for Q&A or clinical presentation) and share any ground rules (i.e. how questions will be handled, feedback loop, etc.) Most panelists will not be seasoned television personalities, and will be nervous. Even if you are also nervous, as moderator you need to project that you are calm, confident and prepared. This will help the panelists to be the same, and will allow the audience to concentrate on the material rather than your nervousness. It is important to smile and be animated (which isn’t always easy when talking to an unresponsive camera.)

The intro should be brief so be sure not to drone on, stutter, be plagued with “ums” or “uhs” or have any uncomfortable pauses in your delivery. It is important for the moderator to speak clearly, be concise with the information, and move through it at a comfortable pace. The general concept of “tell them what you’re going to tell them” applies here. Overcome jitters by focusing on positive thoughts and take a few deep cleansing breaths before you go live. After the open the moderator introduces the panel and launches into the discussion, usually by pitching a question to a panel member, presenting a case or simply handing off the program to the panel. During the rehearsal, reminding the panelists of their expertise, the program outline, and the nature of the interaction will help them relax.

2. Managing the Program
Cover your objectives. Use the objectives you developed as your guide to stay on track with the subject matter. Content planning meetings and script/outline should have prepared the groundwork; your speakers should know the material, the focus and how the information is to build and lead the audience to the key points that were pre-determined by you and your panel. Nerves may cause them to forget, so you have to be the conductor who brings them back to where they need to be in the discussion.

Ask your panelists a question to get them to address the issue. You may have to ask another question to snap them back to the focus of the discussion. A good strategy is to provide a copy of the script/outline for each guest to have with them on hand. Make it very clear that the script/outline is a reference only, a form of prompting. It is not to be read or stared at during the broadcast. Encourage your guests to arrive early, especially if you sense they are apprehensive. This will give them time before the show goes live to work through some of the nerves.

3. Managing the Time
Be aware of time. It’s your responsibility to make sure you cover the material you and the
panelists have decided in advance is the most important. Allow equal time for participation and if you are running out of time, you need to make a quick decision on what to cover. Give plenty of time for Q&A and if you have more time left than material, you need to decide whether to close or ask more questions of
the panelists. You can end early if you have covered the material, but that is very rare.

4. Facilitating the Discussion
You need to make sure that there is interaction between the panelists. Content/planning meetings and conversations are the pre-cursor to the discussion on broadcast day. You’ve already had these discussions with each other and can re-visit them during the program. If you feel one of your panelists is being too quiet, ask the panelist a question to get him/her engaged. Remember that you are not a panelist, even if you are an expert in the field; you need to facilitate your panelists’ presentations, not give one yourself. By interacting with the panelists, looking at both of them, involving them in the discussion, you are role-modeling the behavior you want them to emulate.

5. Representing the Audience

Again, your role isn’t subject expert, you are there as the surrogate for the audience, asking the
questions that they would ask, making sure the information is usable to them (as defined by the objectives). Although the audience can usually interact with you by calling in with questions and sending in chat messages – but if you can anticipate and ask first, it saves them the trouble of finding a phone – and spares you from handling unpredictable phone calls.

6. Direct Address
The goal of the moderator is to establish rapport with the audience. You can do this by looking into the camera lens, which makes "eye contact" with your audience. They really are out there, even though you may not see them. So remember to smile when you can. This gives the feeling of direct address with the audience. Maintain steady eye contact with the camera and your panelists. Avoid darting your eyes and only glance at your notes, don’t study them. Stay engaged with the discussion by keeping your focus on the panel and include the audience when possible.

7. Body Language
Body language is very important. Maintain a comfortable posture so you don’t look rigid or stiff. You will be seated, so be sure not to hunch over, slouch, or rest on your elbows. Don’t swivel in your chair or lean back in it. When you’re nervous it’s easy to fidget. Don’t shuffle papers around or fiddle with any object like pencils, glasses, buttons, microphones, paper clips, etc. Avoid any distracting mannerisms like head bobbing, scratching, sniffling or coughing. This is can be all picked up and exaggerated on camera.

Your facial expressions reflect the mood you want to create in your audience. You won’t motivate them to be interested or enthused by looking deadpan. You may cover the range from smiling, serious, laughing, inquiring, to doubtful. Keep it lively and varied and appropriate to the situation.

Put your hands in a natural position. Don’t fold your arms across your chest. It looks defensive. Don’t be too conscious about hand gestures, but don’t wave your arms around - try to keep these broad movements to a minimum. Stay engaged with your panel, look directly at them and listen attentively while they speak. Keep a close comfortable distance with them. Big gaps between panel members along with leaning back may non-verbally say, “I don’t want to be

8. Vocal Technique
The pitch or tone of your voice should be natural and varied so you don’t
sound monotone. Your voice pitch changes when you’re nervous and the audience usually can tell. A high voice pitch may sound nervous and rushed and a low voice pitch may sound slow and bored. Try to maintain an even pitch and speak clearly so you don’t sound nasally, breathy, thin or harsh. Unless you’re speaking in front of a live audience, you should not have to raise the intensity of your voice. The audio technicians will adjust your sound to a comfortable listening level.

9. Cues
In some studio settings, moderators are fitted with an earpiece called an IFB (Interuptable Full Band) which they wear during the broadcast just like the newscasters. The producer communicates with the moderator and gives him/her cues via the IFB. These cues are simple time cues, content cues and various quick bursts of information to coach and keep the moderator on track and looking good ! Always assume the microphone or camera is “ON” unless the producer tells you that you’re off the air. Always follow your producer or director’s cues. Remember, they want you to look good. When you're not using an IFP you can establish your own cues with your panelists through phrases or specific actions.

10. Transitions
Transitions are passages that take us from one place to another and are used to thread sequences together. Transitional elements link themes and subject matter by moving from one to the other. You need to manage the transitions -- from one section of the discussion to the next, to and from Q&A, and to and from any videos or slides. You should practice these during the rehearsal so you can do it smoothly. They should flow logically and easily as an integral part of the program. After a video, your panelists should address the issues from the video or expand upon it. Determine in advance who will get the initial question after a transition. You should also practice how to use the slides during the discussion.

Sports terms like “hand off,” “pitch” or “toss,” are used to describe transitions between to and from each presenter and the moderator. The timing each of each transition should reflect a balance between the live action and the rehearsed content. Sometimes a presenter can miss a cue or you may run out of time for an allotted segment, and it’s the role of the moderator to be ready for a quick “save.”

11. Q&A
Usually in the last 10 minutes of the discussion is saved for Q&A. If you're in front of a live audience you can open it up for questions in the room and remind your remote viewers that questions can be called into the broadcast. Keep the discussion going and make sure there's no dead air space. Talk radio is a good example of how the host or moderator keeps the program in motion. There is never any long pauses or dead silence, unless there are technical difficulties. When you are ready for Q&A, you can say something like, “Questions can be called in now by dialing XXX-XXX-XXXX, but while we’re waiting for questions, let’s move on to…” Or you can move into a discussion of frequently asked questions, but you must keep things moving along. You will be cued if questions come in or not.

You will need to direct questions to the appropriate panel member(s). Sometimes it will be clear to you who will answer a question, and sometimes a caller may direct their question to a specific panel member. The most important thing is to get the question answered. You may need to cut in if a panel member or caller is going too long, but don’t cut them off. You can help by transitioning to the next call or the next topic of discussion. Keep answers simple and succinct, don’t speculate or guess, if the question can’t be answered it can followed up offline after the broadcast.

12. The Close
Let the audience know that the program is coming to an end by saying something like, “We’re almost of time...” This helps everyone know that you are wrapping things up. Give the panel an opportunity to review the key messages and closing comments. Thank the guests and viewing audience and draw their attention to upcoming events, future programs, and remind them to complete their evaluation forms. This feedback is very important and comments from the audience helps in the planning of future programs.

Above all, have fun! Moderating can be a quite enjoyable experience for all concerned. If you are enjoying yourself, your panelists will too – and that will make the discussion more enjoyable for the audience as well.