Last week, I was fortunate enough to moderate the most recent panel of City Club of Portland’s Friday Forum. The topic was the Clean Energy Jobs Bill. Here’s the video, just for reference (program starts 18:08):
Preparing for the forum nudged me to consider the role of a speaker versus that of a moderator. While I’m not generally too nervous about the thought of speaking in front of others, I feel some serious sweaty palm action when preparing to moderate. Why is that?
The role of a public speaker is generally to inform, engage, and/or persuade others based on one’s expertise on a given topic. A reverend shares their interpretation of holy scripture based on their experience and learnings. A community leader describes a neighborhood’s challenges and needs, steeped in their relationships and lived experience. A professor lectures a class based on pre-determined curriculum, trying to infuse it with the stickiness that will catch in students’ minds. Any speaker carries with them their lived experience and expertise. While you may forget a number of fact, you will never forget your own story, and that is the great talisman of speaking.
A moderator, on the other hand, is not charged with holding and conferring substance; the moderator’s task is to frame the conversation and keep it flowing. When possible, it means giving parity of time and attention to each panelist, and sunlighting issues. It means reminding people in real time who is in the discussion, what ground the panel has already covered, and where we’re going next. It means judging the expertise that both the panelists and the audience bring to a conversation, and valuing everyone’s time and contributions.
When I’m speaking on a topic, the worst that can happen is that I make a fool out of myself and waste the audience’s time. That last part especially is a concern, but that’s it. But when I’m moderating a conversation, the worst I can do is make someone look or feel foolish, and also waste the audience’s time. That’s terrifying!
With fear as my fuel, here’s how I’ve come to prepare for moderating a panel or co-hosting a podcast.
Learn. Read articles. Read white papers. Contact other experts on the topic and invite their input. If a panelist has spoken before, try to listen/watch several clips in order to get a sense of their cadence. If you can’t find media clips, ask other people who know them how they conduct themselves in a personal conversation as well as at a podium. Take yourself to school on both the topic and people.
Prepare. Write more questions than you could possibly need, then distill them. Ask yourself what purpose each question serves in the conversation. If there are collaborators organizing the forum, share questions with them and ask what’s missing and what needs to change/go. Even if you don’t end up speaking an introduction, write one anyway. It’s a great exercise in framing the topic for yourself. Package this in a way that allows you to sift and sort questions in real time to adapt to a fluid conversation. I personally love notecards, but you do you. Memorize the general gist of the questions as best you can in order to get off the page. Read the questions aloud, because it will never flow in your mouth the way it seems on page. Imagine the things that could go wrong and then plan out what you would do if that happens. I have a routine all planned if/when I trip going up the steps.
Let Go. The day of the panel is your time to chill out. Imagine in detail the event going well. Do something during the day that makes you feel confident and poised (I currently run). I like to get near the venue in plenty of time; some people like to spend time in a specific space and rock up to the venue just in time for the event. Check in with the panelists and see how they’re doing.
Listen. Really Listen. During the actual forum, I try to spend as little thought on the actual questions I prepared as possible (this is why I try to memorize them!). Moderating is not about speaking; I find that moderating is about listening as deeply as you can and creating a sense of flow.
What I learned at life today: Moderating is about research, preparation, memorization, and then chucking it all and listening.
Got other tips? Please share!