At Conferences and Meetings, Moderators Have Major Impact
By Amy Dorn Kopelan
May 6, 2004 - 9:36:00 AM

Perhaps even more than the speakers, a conference or meeting's moderators play a critical role in determining the effectiveness of each session. Speakers are frequently the big names � the draw for the audience � but how the moderator steers the session determines whether audience attention is held, and what the audience takes away.

The success with which a moderator does his or her job changes the energy in the room, the flow of the session, and the content that emerges. Great moderators make the panelists better, draw out the most interesting information and keep listeners engaged. Bad ones not only squelch their panelists� potential, they but they also lose audiences.

In fact a Bedlam Entertainment survey of 393 professionals who attended conferences in 2003 found 45% said at least one moderator at most events couldn�t control their sessions. Moreover, only 56% said that moderators for the most part asked provocative questions.

A big part of the problem is that moderators tend to fall under the radar. Both conference organizers and those asked to lead sessions often underestimate how critical and challenging being a good moderator is. Organizers get caught up in other, seemingly bigger, concerns, while moderators themselves may assume there�s nothing to it.

Ironically, some of the same people who prepare extensively when they�re invited to be featured speakers and even hire coaches to refine their presentation skills, don�t hesitate to wing it when they�re asked moderate. There�s a perception that the job is just peppering a panel with questions, but those who do it well realize it�s far more complex.

The good news is that effective moderators can be made. It�s actually much easier to learn to be a good moderator than to be an effective speaker. You don�t have to have a warm personality a good sense of humor to run a session successfully. Those things are just icing on the cake. The skills that are really necessary can typically be developed if one is willing to take guidance, practice and do their homework.

Prospective moderators should heed the following advice:

� Make sure both your voice and physical presence command authority. If they don�t do so naturally, you may need coaching to develop them. How you appear and sound are key determinants in your ability to control a room.

� Learn how to interrupt forcefully but respectfully. Successful moderators are able to cut panelist off when they�re going on too long or not answering the question.

� Know more than the average audience member about the topic of your session. You must be familiar enough with the topic or have researched it sufficiently to be able to ask provocative questions.

� Talk to the panelists at some length before the event. Doing so will enable you to play to the panelists� strengths and creates a comfort level and warmth that�s palpable to an audience.

� Be a critical listener. Rather than thinking ahead, listen to the panelists� comments and tie in what they say to subsequent questions.

� Learn how and when it�s appropriate to draw the audience into a discussion. Some situations lend themselves to audience participation, while in others it derails the flow of the session.

Those who don�t make the effort to be great moderators are wasting a valuable platform. There�s a lot of marquee value in being a moderator. Those who don�t capitalize and fail to impress their audience potentially sacrifice a host of other professional opportunities.

Amy Dorn Kopelan is President of New York-based conference management company Bedlam Entertainment. Founded in 1995 Bedlam Entertainment combines comprehensive knowledge of conference management with expertise in television and theater production to mount dynamic and relevant conferences, meetings and summits. For more information go to, call 212/397-8287 or e-mail [email protected].

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