The panel moderator is similar to an orchestra conductor. Their job is to make sure the speakers on the panel look good and that the panel discussion goes smoothly and stays on time. Though a good panel moderator makes it look easy, it does take a certain skill to pull it off. It’s a delicate balance of talking just enough, but not too much as to overshadow your panelists. A good panel moderator should have a thorough knowledge of the topic. This helps them know the most interesting questions to bring up, and knowing some background on the topic helps fill in the gaps.

Here are some tips for a successful conference panel discussion:

Choose interesting and diverse panelists 

Use diversity to choose panelists who will compliment each other, but also offer a different point of view on the topic at hand. I recently moderated a panel of entrepreneurs, and chose a group who were each successful in their own right, but arrived at success as an entrepreneur in very different ways. The topic was about funding a business. One of them bootstrapped a business on credit cards and loans from family and friends, another one started out as a celebrity athlete and used her winnings to start a business, and another was able to get angel funding and venture capital to fund a business.

Be in the moment 

A good panel moderator will know how to run with a fascinating comment and expand on it. Instead of getting too caught up in your list of questions you have to get through, if one of your panelists brings up an interesting question or comment you haven’t thought of, get the other panelists in on it. Have them talk to each other and encourage them to ask each other questions. Watch the audience. Are they on the edge of their seats at that moment or checking their text messages? If you see that they are intrigued, explore the issue further. One reason you shouldn’t prep too much is so you can get more of these surprise moments. If you have a smart moderator who asks good, probing questions, and smart panelists you will probably have a lively discussion.

Have good timing 

The best comedians have an intuitive sense of comedic timing. It’s something that’s hard to define. Kind of like you know it when you see it. But like most things, it can be learned, and definitely has to be practiced over and over again to perfect. If you want to perfect your timing, find some places where you can practice your skills as a moderator  for free. Get the bugs out at a local Chamber of Commerce or school event where they won’t be so critical of you. Focus on listening to and watching your panelists and the audience and staying in the moment. Watch a good conductor and how they work the orchestra. Good timing is the intuitive give and take between you, the panelists and the audience. Make sure you have adequate time to get to everyone and all questions, but do also end the panel on time.

Not all speakers are able to handle the role of panel moderator. You have to be able to forget about content and switch off your ego for the good of the group. It’s not about your opinion, but the opinions of the panelists and the needs of the audience.

If you’ve been a panel moderator, what did you learn and what advice would you give to a speaker doing it for the first time?