What I Learned from Moderating a Panel for the First Time at Digital Summit Atlanta

 Photo courtesy of  @FredSwanAgency

Photo courtesy of @FredSwanAgency

A few weeks ago, I was asked to moderate a panel on marketing automation for Tech Media's Digital Summit conference. I jumped at the opportunity and felt thrilled when I discovered who my panelists would be: Justin Gray, CEO and Chief Marketing Evangelist of LeadMD, Michael King, Executive Director of Owned Media for Acronym, Jeff Perkins, VP of Global Online Marketing at PGI, and Andy Halko, CEO of Insivia. Each of these guys came from different professional backgrounds, and their unique perspectives and experiences combined for a compelling discussion. 

Although I've spoken in front of audiences and conducted one-on-one interviews, before this event I had never moderated a panel (at least, not that I recall). I'm guessing there are some other folks out there, maybe you, who will one day moderate a panel discussion for the first time. That's why I want to share what I learned from the experience.

Phase 1: Research Is Critical

I'm all about researching. Research before you do something, when you first think of something, or when you're bored on the subway. Research best practices, massive failures, and wacky ideas. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is the key to your success or failure. Gain knowledge through research.

I started my research by simply Googling "how to moderate a panel." I found many helpful articles written by experienced panel moderators. I read through several of these articles and took note of recurring advice and interesting ideas from them.

Next, I cyber-stalked all the panelists. Well, maybe not quite stalked, but I definitely dove deeply into their online footprint. This was one of the most interesting elements of the research. All our panelists had rich LinkedIn profiles. I read about their career histories and consumed as many of their blog posts as I could. I read all their Twitter feeds, too. I compiled a profile about each panelist that included specific questions I might want to ask them, should the occasion arise during the discussion. 

I also researched the topic of marketing automation. I already know about marketing automation, since I work with it daily. What I was looking for were (a) questions that others asked about marketing automation, because our audience would likely have some similar questions, and (b) the hottest issues related to marketing automation at this very moment. I searched Quora to find the former and Inbound.org to find the latter. I put together a list of questions I might want to ask.

Oh yeah, I also made sure that I knew EXACTLY what would be expected at the event. I cleared up a few operational questions with the event organizers (who, by the way, were INCREDIBLY responsive and an absolute DELIGHT to work with). I didn't have many questions for them since they were so proactive in providing information, but the few answers I needed gave me assurance that I could handle the situation.

And finally, I watched a few highly-rated panel discussions on YouTube and listened to some of my favorite podcasts that feature a panel discussion format. I took notes about what tactics the moderators used in interacting with the panel, forming questions, segueing topics, etc. I feel like this kind of studying is among the most important, because you can subconsciously absorb best practices by watching them in action.

Phase 2: Connect With Your Panel

I sent a brief message to my panel as soon as the event organizer connected us, just to let them know that I would follow up with more info later. 

Several of experienced moderators have suggested that a good moderator should prep their panelists as little as possible. Why? Because over-prepping leads to over-rehearsed and snore-inducing panel discussions. Besides, your panelists are busy professionals who are already devoting a lot of their time and attention to the event, and it's wise to avoid bugging them, no matter how amazing and witty your discourse with them may be. So I took this advice to heart and sent my panelists one long email, which I am going to reproduce here, just in case you were curious about it:

Good morning,

I'm very excited to be working with each of you on this panel. I know you're going to knock the audience's socks off. 

To make our discussion as spontaneous, dynamic, and serendipitous as possible, we are going to do all our pre-event preparation in this one email. Of course, if you have any questions or would like to share something with your fellow panelists, please feel welcome to do so.


Here is a brief bio and a link to the LinkedIn profile for each of you. At the event, I will summarize these bios to a 1-3 sentence introduction. Let me know if there is anything of special importance that you would like me to emphasize, add, or omit.

Justin Gray, CEO and Chief Marketing Evangelist -- Justin Gray is the CEO & Chief Marketing Evangelist of LeadMD. He founded the company in 2009 with the vision of transforming traditional "grassroots" marketing efforts through the use of cloud based marketing solutions. Prior to launching LeadMD, Gray has spent the last 12 years helping companies of varying size overhaul and optimize their marketing and sales departments. Most recently Gray was instilled as the CEO for MaaS Impact, a Marketing Automation start-up. In less than one year he grew the company to a respected player in the space and increased revenues by over 400%. 


Michael King, Executive Director of Owned Media for Acronym -- As the current Executive Director of Owned Media at Acronym in New York City Mr. King (aka @iPullRank on Twitter) leads teams covering consumer insights, content, social strategy and SEO for Enterprise brands such as SAP, HSBC, SanDisk and Wharton among others to digital success. With previous experience as a Marketing Director, Developer and tactical SEO at multi-national agencies such as Publicis Modem and Razorfish working for brands like Ralph Lauren, Johnson & Johnson, LG and Citibank Mike’s breadth and depth of experience continues to fuel the game changing insights. 


Jeff Perkins, VP of Global Online Marketing at PGI -- Jeff Perkins is the Vice President of Global Online at PGi, a leading global provider of cutting-edge audio and web meeting solutions. Prior to joining PGi, Jeff spent 5 years working at AutoTrader.com, the #1 automotive website in the US where he helped build the B2B marketing function and capabilities. Earlier in his career, Jeff spent 10 years working in the advertising industry in New York City. Jeff is a frequent contributor to BtoB Magazine and a guest lecturer/panelist at many industry events. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters.


Andy Halko, CEO of Insivia -- As CEO of Insivia, Andy provides expertise in marketing, design, and technology to hundreds of businesses and organizations across the globe.  Not your average entrepreneur, he brought about a half-dozen years of experience honed working for a computer technology company throughout high school and college to his launch of Insivia in the summer of 2002, after graduating from John Carroll University in Ohio. As a speaker and presenter, he also provides engaging, exciting, and information-rich seminars and presentations on e-marketing, search optimization, website conversion optimization, social media, entrepreneurship, and more.



To maintain spontaneity, this is just a short list of the broad, high-level topics we'll cover, not specific questions. I hope to surprise and challenge you (and surprise you to challenge each other). So look forward to having fun. 

Marketing Automation - The Best New Tools & Tactics
1. Why should marketers even care about marketing automation?
2. What are the best new marketing automation tools and tactics that you currently use in your organization? Consider preparing case studies, client success stories, and examples.
3. What cutting-edge tools and tactics have you seen others use that you admire and think more marketers should know about? Think pro-tip level here, not 101 level.
4. What are the most common or most dangerous pitfalls you see to using these new tools and tactics, and how can marketers avoid them?
5. What will marketing automation look like in 1, 3, 5, or even 10 years, and how can marketers prepare for it?
6. What question about marketing automation do you really want to ask your fellow panelists?
BONUS: Send me (MJ) any topics or questions that you really want to cover that you feel I may have missed.


I have been informed that we will have a microphone to pass around to the audience for Q&A. I will structure our panel in this way: for the first 30 minutes, we will have discussion only. At 9:45, we will open up the floor for questions.


I understand that you have been instructed to arrive about 30 minutes before the panel discussion. I would like us to go off to one side (I'm not sure where, so we can wing it that day) to chat in person and get to know each other a bit at that time. 

I will also attend the conference both days, and would be happy to get together with you any time before our panel discussion if you would like to do so (as long as we don't rehearse the panel discussion :D). Just contact me via email, phone (call or text XXX-XXX-XXXX) or Twitter (@mjschindler) to arrange a meeting. Or we can let spontaneity rule and bump into each other accidentally.


Here is a link to the speaker FAQ for this event: http://www.digitalsummit.com/faq_speaker.html

Here are a few other tips from me:
1. We will not display slides during the panel discussion.
2. Jump into the discussion whenever you have something to say.
3. You are welcome to involve the audience.
4. Feel free to ask your fellow panelists questions as well.
5. We will provide water for you to drink.

Let me know if you have any other questions! Have a great rest of your day.

Best regards,
MJ Schindler

That's a long email, but it covers all the necessary topics they need to know in one fell swoop: who they are, what they will be asked, and what to expect from the event and me. 

Phase 3: Pull a Nike and Just Do It

When I arrived at the room where the discussion was to be held, it was filled people who were still enjoying the prior session. I met one of the panelists outside and had time for a nice chat while we waited for the session to end. Then the doors opened and, like the ocean's tide, one wave of people washed out and another wave of people washed in. The room was very full.

After we all introduced ourselves to each other, the event staff helped me set up microphones and chairs for my panelists and me (I can't say enough how sharp these folks are -- they are on top of EVERYTHING). I leverage some of the advice I found in my research and positioned myself in the back of the room with a wireless mic. Since I was in the back, the panelists tended to look out towards the audience when they responded to me. And that makes the audience feel more engaged in the discussion, which was exactly what I wanted.

Here are a few more thoughts I want to pass on to you about the actual act of moderating a panel:

  • Keep calm, have fun, and forget about yourself. It's not about you; it's about giving the audience what they want: accurate information conveyed in a compelling manner.
  • Keep your panelists informed about last-minute changes. In my email, I told them that we were going to open up the floor for questions towards the end. On a whim I decided to allow questions throughout the session, just to ensure that things were lively. I made certain that the panelists and the audience understood this so that they would not be unpleasantly surprised.
  • Focus on the panelists. Listen very carefully to what they have to say. 
  • Make a mental or written note of points you want to follow up on.
  • Ask questions that you genuinely want to know the answer to. Be curious about the topic and the panelist's thoughts.
  • Engage the audience. I could have done a much better job of this, I think. I intended to (but forgot) to start off the event by asking the audience for a show of hands about what industries they were in, whether or not they used marketing automation, etc. That would have created more interaction from the get-go. It would also have given the panelists a better idea of who they were talking to, so that they could shape their discussion accordingly. I did have the opportunity to conduct a brief, relevant poll midway-through the discussion in a lead-up to a question, and you could see and hear the audience's attention pique. 
  • Give all your panelists equal speaking time. If you feel like someone hasn't spoken in a while, as them a direct question.
  • In fact, whenever possible, as your panelists individually and have them respond to each other if they don't do so on their own. There were times when I preferred to throw out a question to the group, but beware of doing that too often, because it generally causes a brief awkward silence before a panelist takes the bait.
  • Survey the audience and keep an eye out for people who want to ask a question. I almost missed two gentlemen who had their hands up for a question because they were just behind and to my right, out my sightline. I won't let that happen again.
  • Watch the clock. Wear a watch on your wrist so that you can do this more easily. I am proud that we did a good job of wrapping things up on time and without cutting anyone off mid-sentence. The event staff definitely helped with this by letting me know how much time I had left.
  • End on a big note. I did this by saving an awesome question that I really wanted to ask until almost the very end of the event. 

All in all, I genuinely believe that it was an excellent panel discussion. The audience seemed to be paying as much attention as you can expect from a room full of digital marketers who are constantly glued to their devices. The panelists were, as I've said over and over, incredible, so all I had to do was set them up and let them run with it.

Phase 4: Follow Up

Be sure to thank and connect with all your panelists after the panel is over. Retweet and share any comments you can find that mention their involvement. Pass along comments, recordings, and video footage, if possible. Be a good neighbor, ya know?

If you're looking for a panel moderator or would like some help moderating your own panel, feel free to contact me. If I can help you, I'd be more than happy to do so. Oh yeah, and if you have some panel moderation tips to share, toss 'em out down in the comments! I can't wait to hear your thoughts.