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Everything In Moderation: 5 Secrets to Being a Great Moderator

Have you ever thought about what it takes to moderate a conversation with an industry expert before a live audience? How does one create a conversation that is interesting, thought provoking, and provides information that the audience wants and needs to know.  Being a moderator is an art and a science especially when the topic is both emotionally and politically charged. The following is an observation of how my business partner, Alyce Blum, created the space for an engaging and educational dialog with John Spencer, the nation's foremost expert on urban warfare as it relates to the current Israel-Hamas conflict. 

I know this feels like it just got real heavy by mentioning the conflict and it is very likely you had an emotional response and are curious what type of dialog is this going to be! Will it be political, will it be religious, will it be.  That’s how I felt when Alyce told me she’d been asked to moderate this conversation.  And when I saw her in action, she navigated it brilliantly.  Here’s how she did it.  

#1 - Be clear on expectations and set boundaries

As the moderator you have control over the direction of the conversation and can set the foundation for what is acceptable for discussion and what is not. 

In the case of this event, the first words out of Alyce’s mouth were, “Good evening, and thank you all for being here. Tonight, we are here to learn about Urban Warfare in the 21st century and how it is playing out in the Israel-Hamas War. This is not a conversation around sharing personal, ideological or political points of views. And most importantly, let us all take a moment to remember that we are speaking about human lives, lives that have been lost, lives that are being held hostage and lives that are at stake.”   

By being clear on what is to be discussed gives the moderator the ability to keep the guest speaker on track and prevent audience members from diverting the dialog. 

#2 - Create connection between the expert and the audience

It is important that the audience can see a bit of themselves in the expert speaker. This is an important step as it makes the expert more relatable. As a moderator you want to ask questions that both give background information on the speaker to the audience while giving easy to answer personal(ish) questions to your guest.

Alyce created that connection through getting John to talk about his favorite local restaurant, something nearly everyone can relate to, food, then created a bridge to the next topic of conversation by saying…

“John, you have traveled extensively. What is your favorite dish from all of the places you’ve been to?” 

There is great thought in the second question as Alyce knew from the research she had done on John that he had just returned from a trip to Gaza. 

#3 - Do your homework and know your guest, what they talk about, what they are know for...

As the moderator one of the best ways you can build credibility with the audience and the expert to whom you are speaking is to research the subject and the experts involvement by reading the latest articles, watching relevant videos and listening to podcasts. In addition to this homework Alyce also made it a point to have direct conversation with John in the days leading up to the event to ensure the conversation would let him lean into his expertise. 

If you are moderating a conversation here are some questions to use to prepare:

  • What are some questions you would like for me to ask you? 

  • By giving your guest an opportunity to answer questions they like, it ensures their expertise is highlighted and they feel valued.  It doesn’t hurt that it makes you look good too when they say - “oh, great question”.  

  • Is there anything you want me to avoid asking? 

  • As the moderator it is your role to make the guest look good, this is not an inquisition or an opportunity to make yourself look smarter than your guest.

#4 - Ask informed questions

There is asking a question and then there is asking an informed question and the difference looks like this. 

Question: “What are the challenges you think the IDF are faced with when it comes to tunnel warfare?” 

Informed Question: “I found it interesting on your podcast when you spoke about the challenges of tunnel warfare for the IDF when you said, ‘quote…’ would you mind expanding on these challenges?” 

The informed question does 3 things:

  1. Provides additional background information for the audience. 

  2. Takes the pressure off of the guest because you are using their material which they already know so it’s easy for them to answer. 

  3. Gives you, the moderator, huge “cred” with the expert guest and the audience because you have done your homework. 

#5 - Q&A is important but if mismanaged can derail #1

Q&A is a great way to bring the audience into the conversation but in sensitive conversations it can also lead to questions that take away from the main focus.  For this event Alyce worked with the event organizers to do 3 things. 

  1. Before the program started the audience was given note cards and pens to write out their question(s) and pass to the event organizer prior to Q&A.

  2. Alyce informed the audience there would be time for Q&A at the later part of the event and that questions would be fielded using the note cards. 

  3. The event organizer selected questions that kept the conversation in line with the stated objectives, eliminated duplicate questions, ensured the questions added to the conversation that had already taken place, and kept the timing of the event on track. 

For this event, the note card Q&A format was the perfect way to keep the conversation on track.  Case in point… before the start of the conversation an audience member gave Alyce a note card with a politically charged question, a question that surely would have been asked if a filtering process was not put in place. Alyce thanked the audience member and informed them to give the question to the event organizer, to which the audience member replied “So, you are not going to start by asking my question first?” Alyce replied, “No, we will have time for Q&A towards the end of the conversation. I have a host of questions already prepared to get us started.”   And, Alyce answered the audience members question when she set the boundaries by essentially letting them know the conversation would not be focused in the direction of their question.   

Being the moderator calls for a touch of diplomacy, a dash of knowledge, and heavy helping of preparedness. Follow these 5 steps and you’re sure to elicit a thought provoking conversation for your audience while shining the spotlight on the expert guest. 

If your organization is seeking a skilled moderator, please reach out. At AI we believe in shining the light on the expert by preparing thoughtful questions, reading the room and sticking to the objectives of the organization. We’re here to help make your event a success! 

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