9 Steps to Being a Great Moderator

Panel-wrangling in the age of extremes


It’s a ubiquitous feature of the lecture hall or public presentation: the person who, during the Q&A period, stands up and says, “Well, it’s more of a comment…” And then proceeds to monopolize the airtime for five minutes.

The audience groans. The speakers at the dais shift uncomfortably.

Audience members want to tell the commenter, “Don’t you know this isn’t about you? This event is about all of us, and we’re here to engage with the speakers.”

Everyone sits awkwardly in their seats until the moderator comes to the rescue.

The moderator, the unsung hero of presentations everywhere! The moderator is the genteel host, inviting everyone to feel included and gently chiding those who stray from the rules. The moderator shows the speakers at their best, while remaining mostly invisible.

I love moderating.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I volunteer to moderate panels at book festivals and writing conferences. It’s a wonderful way to meet delightful authors, and there’s a special thrill in helping to present people at their best.

But figuring out how to moderate a panel isn’t intuitive. Once, when I was checking in to moderate a panel at a book festival, a writer on an earlier panel approached the organizers.

“Ugh, that was awful,” she moaned. “Our moderator was terrible. She spent all the time interviewing the other speakers, and I hardly had a chance to even say my book title.”

Let’s not let that happen. Whether you have a chance to moderate at a book festival (and I hope you do!) or you’re simply at a cocktail party, caught in conversation and trying to get one friend to shine in front of someone else she’s trying to impress (see #4!), I have some tips:

1. Read the books. If you’re moderating an author panel, of course you’ll want to know the books. Once you’ve read, think about what the author was trying to accomplish, and think about what you liked best about the work. Make notes.

2. Know the rules. What is the format of the panel? Do the organizers expect the authors to read? Will you be introducing the biographies of the authors, or will someone else do that? How much time do you have?

3. Plan to use your time wisely. For a 50-minute program, I like to do very short introductions (one or two sentences per author), brief readings (no more than five minutes apiece), and about 15 minutes of the panelists answering my questions. That leaves the remaining time for audience questions.

4. Ask questions that sell the book, not that show your literary insight. In most cases, your audience members will not have read the authors’ books; they are there out of curiosity. Ask questions that allow the panelists to pique the interest of the audience, questions like, “What inspired you to write this story?” or “Who is your favorite secondary character and why?” This is where the moderator becomes invisible, and the authors shine.

5. Warn the audience that their turn is coming. Often, bookish audiences are shy, so I like to give them a warning that I’ll ask one more question before opening things up to the audience. That gives them a chance to formulate their question and, if applicable, line up at the microphone.

6. Have enough prepared questions to fill the silence. If the audience is quiet, jump right back in with your own questions. Keep everyone at ease by staying calm and confident. Remember, this is your tea party! Keep refilling the cups when they get empty.

7. Manage the audience. If there’s no microphone for the audience, repeat the question so everyone can hear. If an audience member asks only one author on a multi-author panel a question, see if you can expand the question so everyone can answer. And if you get that verbose, “It’s not so much a question as a comment” person? Politely step in, thank them for their thoughts, and see if you can rephrase it as a question. If not, move to the next person.

8. Don’t sell your own book. If you’re an author (and I am), it can be tempting to remind the audience that you, too have brilliant, beautiful words vying for their attention. But the panel isn’t about the moderator, it’s about the authors. The best impression the moderator can make is to be self-effacing — and, who knows, maybe that will inspire someone to look up your book. But there’s grace to be found in touting others. Let that be your reward while moderating.

9. Conclude by praising the book. Even if you didn’t like the books you’re talking about, someone did (including the author sitting next to you), and you can find something positive to highlight. Tell the audience what you genuinely liked and encourage them to support the authors. Also, don’t forget to thank your event’s organizers and sponsors.

I hope you’re inspired to try your hand at moderating. Enjoy! And let me know how it goes.

Carrie Callaghan has moderated over a dozen panels at book festivals and writing conferences, and she’d love to hear your tips (and horror stories!) in the comments or on Twitter at @carriecallaghan. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, was published last year by Amberjack.

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