Question: You moderate a lot of panel discussions at education meetings, and you have a reputation for doing a pretty good job at it. In fact, some of those appearances are embedded above in this post. Can you pass along some tips to the rest of us?
John: Sure, but why are you asking me now?
Question: Well, you’re not getting any younger, are you?
John: Fair enough. There’s really just one unbreakable commandment for running a worthwhile panel discussion: No opening remarks!
Question: Why not?
John: Because if I ask panelist so-and-so to make a few remarks, I have given up control of the microphone. That means when he or she goes off on a tangent or goes on too long, I cannot interrupt without being rude. But if it’s all Q&A, it’s always my microphone, and I can interrupt without being rude. Remember, it’s supposed to be a ‘discussion,’ not a series of presentations or ‘opening remarks.’ How many of these events have you been to where they never even get to a discussion because each panelist takes 10 or 15 minutes — even though the moderator had told them ‘5 minutes max!’
Question: What are your other ‘rules’?
John: There are two expressions I try to use as often as possible. One is “I don’t understand,” and the other is “Tell me more.”
Question: Tell me more.
John: That’s cute.
Question: Well, I’m just trying to follow your example.
John: OK. Here’s why. When I hear jargon, even if I understand it, I will say “I don’t understand’ because that forces the panelist to come down to earth and speak in understandable English. He may be thinking that I am pretty stupid, but he will invariably provide a better, clearer explanation. “Tell me more” works on that same principle.
Question: So those are the secrets?
John: Well, there’s more. The moderator has to listen to what people are saying and respond to that. Some moderators seem to feel that it’s their job to ‘balance’ the conversation, giving equal time to everyone. I don’t worry about that. In fact, I often tell panelists that they have to speak up if they want to be heard. Life is unfair, and so are panel discussions.
Question: What else?
John: I always ask panelists ahead of time if there’s a question they want to be asked. If there is, I ask it, because that allows them to say what they would have said if there had been opening remarks. Everyone has a set speech, a shtick, and I want to make it easy for them to get it out there for the audience.
Question: How do you see the moderator’s role?
John: Good question. Kind of like a conductor.
Question: Orchestra or train?
John: Both, I guess. If the panel has been chosen well, then there will be different voices (instruments), and a good conductor will help them create something worth listening to. But a moderator is also driving a train toward a clear destination, greater understanding of the issue. Remember, the operative word is ‘discussion,’ but if you look at most convention programs, these events are usually billed as ‘panels,’ whatever that means. It’s all about having a decent conversation, one that sheds light and holds the audience’s interest.
Question: You feel pretty strongly about this.
John: Sure, because pedagogy matters. We shouldn’t be lecturing when we know that the more interactive and participatory an event is, the more likely it will be interesting to the audience.
Question: Is there an ideal number of panelists?
John: No, but two is too few. I would say that three or four is probably best. I’ve juggled as many as seven, but that’s no fun for anyone.
Question: What about taking questions from the audience?
John: Essential, but here the moderator has to be tough and occasionally rude. A lot of so-called questioners really want to hold forth with their opinions. I always make it clear that I won’t tolerate that, but even so someone always gets up and tries to make a speech. I am always forced to interrupt someone and ask (or demand) ‘What’s your question?’
Question: Your blog is usually about education. In fact, you usually complain about something or other. What’s up with this?
John: I am taking a bold stand against boredom, against lousy pedagogy and stultifying panels. Pretty courageous, huh?
Question: Chances are most people won’t read this far. You OK with that?
John: Well, if even one moderator behaves differently because of this, I will feel I have actually accomplished something.
Question: I suppose you think you’re pretty clever, putting all this information about moderating into Q&A form.
John: You said that, I didn’t.
7 thoughts on “Asking Questions”
Thanks for passing on the advice and kudos to your interviewer too. You two seem to be of the same mind.
Dr. Merrow, this blog is … not your best work.
Funny…but a couple of people in my office said the same thing…
I disagree! Thank you so much for starting a conversation about panel moderation as pedagogy, something I think about a lot. I’m surprised to learn that you let people say their shpiel. I have a feeling that you are exercising more discernment in this than you are letting on. I have started a new practice of always pre-interviewing panelists when possible, so that I can get an idea of what they have to add on a topic that is most interesting and relevant. That way if, say, topic X arises, I can look at a specific panelist and say, “You told me an interesting story about X. Why don’t you tell us that story now.” I guess the idea is to get as close as I can to being able to mind-read what the person will say when called on, so that I can make sure they say something interesting, rather than, say, their boring shpiel.
Also, it’s worth thinking about the constraints on panel moderation that don’t exist for a classroom – namely the fact that it’s really not socially acceptable at all to have individual time during a panel in which the teacher/moderator can figure out what students/panelists are thinking and then pick out the most interesting ideas for group discussion. So I guess what I am doing by pre-interviewing is trying to simulate this as much as possible.
I could honestly go on for many more paragraphs about this topic – it is that interesting to me! So please take this feedback into account, too, John!!
PS – I realized that “individual time” isn’t clear. What I mean is the time in a classroom when a teacher can have students individually write down their thoughts or share them with a partner, and then walk around the classroom studying the students’ ideas. That way, in a group discussion that follows, the teacher can pick out the students with the most interesting/productive ideas to call on.
Pre-interviewing is a good idea. I try to have a conversation (which is when I ask what question they’d like to be asked), but I never thought of it as a pre-interview. As for letting them say their piece, I have found that it’s easier to do that than to resist. Most are going to get it in there somehow, but as long as it’s still my microphone, I can control how much time they get to devote to it.
Thanks for weighing in, Elizabeth….
You might also enjoy reading some panel-moderating comments in John Scalzi’s blog at
as well as the followup at
His commenters are pretty good, too.