"Will you chair our conference"?

The Five Brilliant Things Every Successful Moderator Does

I am a great fan of checklists - and not just for their power in promoting what is already known in the 'usual' settings ranging from a plane cockpit to an operating theatre.    

So, here are five things to help you chair a conference or meeting so it goes really, really well.

Prepare fully

Are you sure what sort of moderation is wanted: there is quite a difference in expectation between a chair recruited for subject expertise in contrast to one who is there to entertain with jokes and clever asides, and both of those are very different to a someone who is there to engage everyone and build a welcoming community atmosphere. (See a visual here about the roles of a sage, joker or host: the expert, entertainer and engager.)

Do you know how the speakers have been briefed? What have they been asked to do, for how long, is there breathing space between them for you to use for a comment, humorous aside, summary etc? The bigger and more formal the meeting the more important it is for all speakers to have been rehearsed…by the event company probably, though you might want to get involved too.  This element of preparation can cause tensions with others who don’t see the importance of this (both speakers and even some conference organisers).

What is your pre event routine…depending where you are on the reactions assessment, things like making sure you sleep well or do not arrive with a coffee OD after a party the night before, really matter. Personally I like to try and get at least 8 hours sleep, go for a run, do a short meditation and visualise the day – all before getting on site 2 hours before it is due to kick off. You can see why I try to get to bed early the night before!

Know your contingencies: for example if the day is flat or you go over time then you can use a 'buzz group' or shorten a Q&A?

Know how you will set the tone for the whole meeting

First things are fateful and what you say and do in the first 10 minutes really, really matters. If you run through housekeeping and just introduce the first speaker the die is cast, the day is lost – the meeting is almost certain to be passive and dull unless you are lucky to have totally brilliant speakers.

As an expert moderator you might want to include your SCQ early on. This starts with Situation, Complication and Question. You might wish to outline what you’re hoping to discover as you listen to the days proceedings.  You can then keep referring back to what is emerging for you and keep asking the group about it too.

As a performer you might want to tell some jokes, and even an expert or engagement focused moderator might want to find some smirkful segue to lighten the mood.

As a community builder, just finding out a few things with a show of hands can make a huge difference even when you don’t have time for any sort of small group discussion (of the sort that would meet my 'facilitation' principle of “all using their own voices in the first 10 minutes”). For example, my ‘human pie chart process’ asks who has travelled the furthest, what first languages are spoken, who knows less than 10 people and who over half, what job roles and organisation types are represented etc.

Keep track

Keep an eye on time: are you on schedule for breaks and other key time points? Do you know where you have flexibility to catch up , such as Q&A sessions, long breaks etc?

Do track speakers as they work through any slides and do remind a speaker who looks like they are going very, very slow at around half way through their allotted time.

How will you help speakers be aware of time?  A clock?  A written or other signal? Walking toward them (slowly and with a smile!) when time is up?  The cardinal sin for a chair is to let time slip - you are there as the group's representative and pretty much everyone at the event is certain to have time-keeping as their number one concern.

Do notice and use in real time what is happening in social media about the event, for example hashtag comments on Twitter. These sort of illustrations make a great segue!

Manage conversations

Are you a fan of Buzz Groups?  These can work even in large events. But in the wrong hands (or at the wrong event) are a bit naff.

What about setting a question for the group to take to coffee, and then asking for a few responses to it later?

And what about asking people to hand in questions or comments to you on paper (a sort of conversation with you).  You can read out some on arrival. You can even get them to try and throw them in as paper planes for a prize if you are feeling playful.

I am not a fan of stacking Q&A to the end of a whole morning or afternoon. Instead I sometimes suggest what I call the “seminar sandwich” – with Q&A or table work after every two speakers.  This way the points from the early speakers are not forgotten!

The degree of ambient light in the room (natural or artificial) matters: the more light, the more you are signalling interaction and less a show. Sometimes those working on the AV side of an event don’t get it when you ask for more house lights. Some clients like the theatrical darkness too. By the way, so do I for some things (eg a selection of photos with music before a start, a video after a break etc).

There are a number of things you can do to avoid 'Death By Feedback'.  And a range of 'Analogue Voting' tools are really helpful.

Know how to lead a panel discussions

This is the hardest thing for most moderators, especially after lunch! However, a lively and interesting panel can be THE event highlight.

Be clear how far this is a 'broadcast' show or really a chance to engage the audience. Panel discussions are more of a “sell and tell” event format, less of an “engage and shape” one.  So if you don’t think a panel is relevant do say so and find other uses for the time (NB though, a ‘pure’ moderator doesn’t really challenge the client agenda and ‘merely’ seeks to bring it to life).

I recommend choosing a TV or Radio interviewer (news anchor, chat show host etc) you admire and who you think has a relevant style, and try to imagine what they would do – their tone of voice, sort of interactions, how they play guests off each other. Give it a go.

Do you want to play it 'nude' or 'natty'! Do you want to dive straight into the discussion or start with some witty CV summaries ("...and in her last job/a recent tweet Lisa said…”) to kick it off.

Try to avoid pre-prepared reflections to start from each panel member. At the most you might allow some quick, spontaneous comments from each person of what they have learnt if the panel is about the day – or what they are wanting to discover/explore if the panel is a new topic.

How will you engage others in the audience – will you leave the stage and bound around with a mic, or use runners?


Of all of these prompts in my checklist, which is the freshest or seems the hardest?  Focus on finding out more about that - and preparing to give it a go.


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