The Art of Paneling: Moderating Meaningful Conversations on Stage

Jennifer Brown | |


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In this minisode, Jennifer reveals how and why you should be a panelist and the importance of taking the stage. Jennifer shares how being a panelist and moderator has helped her grow her business and shares tips for creating diverse and inclusive panels. Discover how to prepare questions, and the key qualities of a good moderator.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The benefits of being visible and taking the stage (1:40)
  • How to get invited to be a panelist (6:40)
  • The planning process for being a panelist or moderator (10:00)
  • How to ensure that panels are diverse (11:00)
  • Why moderators can have a point of view (15:30)
  • The challenges and opportunities that come with being a moderator (20:30)
  • Inclusive practices for moderators and panelists (25:00)
  • How to expand your network and find more diverse voices (27:30)
  • How moderators can ensure that every panelist’s voice is heard equally (34:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and Jennifer Brown. Today, we are going to be discussing in this minisode, we’re going to talk about taking the stage, the art of paneling.

Jennifer, always great to be with you, thanks so much.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hey, thanks, Doug.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. Let’s talk about, first of all, we’re going to talk about paneling, being a panelist. I guess the first thing I want to ask you is why is it important that we look for opportunities to be a panelist or to take the stage in some way?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. My answer is that this is a great opportunity for any kind of visibility. If you’re asked to moderate a panel or be on a panel, those are both great roles that we can talk about today and how to manifest those.

We also should be suggesting this format. I really like the panel format. I know a lot of people are amazed at how many I do, and also, we have the joke of “death by panel.” Sometimes you go to a conference and you’re asking, “Another panel? Really?”

Panels really serve a great purpose. They get a lot of voices on the stage, and in the best sense, there can be this great unexpected rapport between people who have never met before, and that really comes down to not only the panelists, but the art of the moderator, of course. A really good moderator does the preparation we’re going to talk about today, and then creates the circumstances and the container for this amazing conversation to happen that’s never happened before. You’ve got different points of view; you’ve got different people that the audience can connect to as well. Somebody may really be struck by one particular panelist.

The opportunity for learning across lots of different dimensions of who we are as learners is there as well when you’re in the audience listening to a panel.

The art of moderation of panels is something I wanted to delve into with you today, Doug. I’ve done so much of it and I think about it a lot. I love the challenge of panels. They’re complex, and you never know where they’re going. To me, that’s part of the fun. It’s staying loose and responsive, listening, and trying to stay on some agenda. It’s mental gymnastics, but in a good way.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s so funny. One of the things I want to ask you before we get into this, because you do a lot of panels and you’re asked to do a lot of panels, what has been possible for you through moderating panels? Like you said, it’s not about just doing it to do it. What kinds of opportunities have opened up for you through moderating panels?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. This is why I think it’s such a great mechanism for leaders who are up and coming.

Not all of us—probably almost none of us—are ready for the TED stage. That’s something that is very aspirational, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with being the only person on a stage. It’s very intimidating.

Panels are this great way. It’s like an interim warmup for you on the stage to get your voice, find your footing, state your point of view, and associate yourself with other leaders, which can be a very powerful thing in the audience’s mind, and powerful for your own brand.

Just the fact that you get to be rubbing shoulders and doing prep calls with some really big names. Panel participants usually are big names, that’s why they’re chosen. Usually, the moderator’s status is less in whatever metric you want to use. Not a bad thing. Moderators are, often, somebody who people don’t know.

What’s valued in a moderator is to facilitate the knowledge and the expertise of these people out and deliver that to the audience. That’s your job.

Your other job, I think, selfishly, is you’re on that platform. You do have an opportunity as well, although it takes some skill, to make sure you’re getting your point of view out here and there. But it’s got to be done in a very subtle and balanced way. You’ve got to be looking for those moments to get your oar in, so to speak. Again, we’ll talk about that a little bit later. It’s a real art to balance all of this at once.

I would really recommend, though, this is an opportunity you always want to raise your hand for. You want to always say yes and figure out how you’re going to do it later, which is of the best advice I ever got. Don’t let yourself ever be intimidated by an invitation to do moderating.

Today, we’ll talk through some of the things that I do in order to ground you in your preparation, to make sure you have enough questions to ask so that you always know, what am I doing next? Where am I taking the conversation next? There are some real tactical things you can do the make sure you’re in charge of the flow, ensuring everyone’s getting heard and getting equal time, and that you’re managing Q&A. We can get into all the tactics of that in a bit. How do we even chunk out the agenda? How long do you need? All these questions. We can get into that. Through the preparation, you’ll feel a lot better once you actually get on the stage.

DOUG FORESTA: I want to get into that in a minute. Before we do that, can you say a little bit about—I guess this is a two-part question. How do you, Jennifer Brown, get invited to do panels? And then how does “one” get invited to do panels? You’ve been doing this for a while, so they may not be the same answer.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s true. It’s true. It’s funny, a lot of my corporate friends who are employees and not entrepreneurs, they are putting themselves forward for conferences, for example, or maybe somebody taps them on the shoulder to do something.

In my case, I didn’t have a company paying for me to go moderate a panel. These are not paid opportunities usually. When I was building my business—and this is advice for all entrepreneurs—we all are faced, I think, with opportunities to put ourselves forward or pitch a panel idea and pitch ourselves as moderators and put a panel together through our network, for example. And then we get on a plane and go do this for free.

I am suggesting that you do this. It’s really important from a marketing perspective. Whatever business you’re in, you have to put yourself where your clients and your prospects are. Wherever they’re gathering, it’s sales 101, you need to be where they are.

For many years, and still to this day, moderating a panel is one of the few things I will do for no fee because it isn’t paid, usually. But even bigger than that, I’ve met so many clients, people who would end up being very important to my business, who have been on a single panel.

I’ve done a lot of work with Toyota and Genentech over the years, and my contacts at Toyota and Genentech were on the same panel that I moderated once.

DOUG FORESTA: Oh, my gosh.

JENNIFER BROWN: I walk in, I don’t know them; I prepare, we get to know each other. We’re on the panel together, and they end up being fast friends and huge clients for us. We were talking about generational diversity on that particular panel, but I met them both at the same time.

It’s fortuitous, it’s serendipitous. You can never know what’s going to result. We’ve all got to hustle. We should all be thinking of ourselves as having some level of business development duties. Whether you’re an employee who gets a paycheck every two weeks reliably, we all need to be investing in our brand and making sure that we’re rubbing shoulders with visible people and we’re gaining mentors and sponsors and broadening our network. These are really good ways to do that.

My advice is not to get hung up on the investment of these things. There’s so much that can happen that’s serendipitous and unpredictable. Again, whatever professional you are, whoever is paying your paycheck or not, you’ve got to put yourself in these environments. You’ve got to be there. What do they say, half of life is showing up?

DOUG FORESTA: Yeah, exactly. 99 percent of life is showing up I think.

JENNIFER BROWN: Really?

DOUG FORESTA: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And then doing a good job, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

DOUG FORESTA: Let’s talk about the “doing a good job” part. I’ve decided to step forward, I’m going to take the stage, I’m going to be a moderator. What does that planning process look like? Where do I start? What do I do next?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sometimes I will pitch myself to moderate something and suggest panelists. Do some work and give the whole package to someone that you’re pitching. Meaning you have a concept, you have a role for yourself, but you especially are bringing people to the table. That is doing somebody’s work for them, making their lives easier, and making it easier for them to say yes.

This is why we always need to be investing in our network. We need a broad Rolodex of experts. You should always be doing that anyway.

When you get on somebody’s radar screen, have all of that thought through. You have a concept, you have the voices, you have a variety of whatever it is—industries. Remember, with respect to diversity and inclusion, panels can fall into a big trap of not being diverse. Always bear in mind, if you have anything to do with the choice of panelists, you’re looking for a cross section in every way, a multi-dimensional panel. It’s really important. Or if you’re on a panel and you notice that it’s not a diverse panel, it’s incumbent on us to question that and push back on the organizers if you’re being asked to be a part of something, whether a panelist or a moderator.

Back to how it arrives in my lap. Sometimes, it’s somebody I actually suggested, somebody said yes, and now we need to prepare and connect to everybody, have conference calls.

Other times, I’m assigned a panel that I don’t know. Then we have an introduction chain that goes back and forth over e-mail, we have some prep calls. We get to know each other. I introduce myself, my work, the point of view of the panel. It’s interesting, sometimes somebody has mocked up the purpose of the panel and the talking points, I receive it, and I don’t think it’s exactly as clean as it should be or it doesn’t make any sense or I have an issue with the title that they want to use, it doesn’t grab you, or maybe the title that they decided on doesn’t reflect what I think the discussion should be about or doesn’t reflect the expertise of the panelists.

I often have to rewrite the title and the session description. When I’m coming up with the questions for the panelists, I have to come up with those as well. Sometimes you have to go into creative mode to reshape something that you inherit. Sometimes you have the authority to do that, so don’t just assume because you’re given something to do that you have to live with it as is.

You will interview the and get to know panelists as part of the prep process, and this can be done with one-on-one or group calls. If you have the time, one-on-one calls with panelists are the best because then you can really bond with them, you can get a feel for who they are. You can ask them questions like, “What do you really want to talk about vis a vis this topic? What’s really important to you? What are you really proud of?” We can go into some other questions in a moment, Doug.

When you’re asked to moderate something, don’t just assume you’re inheriting something that you can’t do anything about. This happened to me recently. It arrived on my desk and it’s this huge panel in front of 7,000 people, but I thought it was poorly written—poorly titled, the questions were all over the place that the organizing team had given me. Then I looked at the panelists and I thought about their background and what I think they probably want to talk about given what they do and who they are. It was all out of whack.

I asked if I could revise it and they said, “Oh, my goodness, yes. We would love it if you would. We really don’t know what we’re doing here.”

DOUG FORESTA: So, they were actually very receptive.

JENNIFER BROWN: They were.

DOUG FORESTA: Right, so don’t think that they won’t be.

JENNIFER BROWN: They were grateful. What you have to know about conferences is that there’s a core, very small, inexperienced team usually managing the agenda. They are stretched super thin. Yes, they basically own this multi-day agenda with thousands of people with multiple stages and breakouts and a main stage—it is really complicated. In my experience, organizing teams are very responsive to you taking the wheel and steering things.

Ask these questions. Don’t let it pass by. It’s your opportunity to put your stamp on something. It’s your opportunity also to drive the conversation where you want to drive it and what energizes you, which is going to make you a better moderator and better on stage anyway because you’re going to be talking about what you want to talk about and what you think is most intriguing about the topic and about the leaders that you have now met, and whose stories it’s your job to facilitate for the audience.

You have to be excited. You have to think this is an important discussion. Ultimately, you’re there to enable these people to shine. That’s your job.

DOUG FORESTA: I have a follow-up question to that, which is that idea that, yes, it’s your job to help these people to shine. At the same time, is it ever okay to bring a point of view with you as a moderator?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s a real fallacy that a moderator is just a vessel. This is where my business development hat comes in as a business owner, always trying to think about what’s in it for me to be on this stage?

I was talking about earlier, getting yourself on a plane and doing things without being paid and doing all the prep work which, by the way, sometimes panelists are itchy and they want a lot of prep calls. It’s a little bit annoying for me.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s not an insignificant amount of time.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, it’s not. And if you take on rewriting the session description and coming up with a different title and sending people the questions that you agree to. Even going so far as what I do, which is letting them react to the questions and send me their favorite questions. There’s a lot of back and forth. I go on stage for panels sometimes with ten pages of notes, and I’m ready to do something in 45 minutes with four people. I’ve that about how I’m going to structure it, how much time, et cetera.

It’s a little complex. I don’t mean to intimidate our listeners, because my overall message is: Say yes to things like this. What’s the worst that can happen? (Laughter.)

What’s in it for you as a moderator? You have these precious moments on the stage to be seen by hundreds of people—or maybe thousands in some of my cases. I am there to be in service of the people and the companies they represent, getting those stories out there with their personal stories. But I’m also there to connect the dots in the way that I can only do because I’m an expert in this topic.

Sometimes you’re not an expert in what you’re moderating. That presents its own challenges. If we have time, maybe we can talk about, too, because I’ve certainly been there.

If you do know the topic fairly well, the mechanics of it are to invite the voices on your panel to weigh into certain questions. And when they finish speaking, everyone turns back to you as a moderator, and the ball’s in your court again.

At that moment, before you redirect and you throw the ball to somebody else on the panel, you have an opportunity to say something like, “Jane, the point you just made resonates with me, what we see in my work is that this is how that shows up,” or, “This is what I would add to what you just shared that might be helpful for our audience.”

You’re actually engaging with your panelists and reacting to and adding to what they’ve said, but you’re also adding value to the point that was just made, and you’re involving the audience by talking to them for a moment as well. That’s how I subtly get my points in. I add to a point that was made. I turn my shoulders to the audience and almost become a panelist for a moment.

A moderator is a panelist also, you’re also a teacher. You have points that you can make that are additive that can connect the dots between what is said on that stage. You’re not just there to reflect. You’re there to reflect, curate, and highlight what is most important about what is being said on that panel for the audience.

This is why I always need to know who the audience is. This is part of the preparation, particularly with the organizers of a conference. They know their audience best. They’ve run this conference probably for years. As a moderator, you ask, “Has there been a panel on this before? What level is this audience? How much are they going to know about this topic? Does it need to be a basic conversation or an advanced conversation?”

You may want to ask a few other questions: Has this topic been broached in the past? What has been the feedback about it? What do you think people struggle with when it comes to this topic?

A lot of conference organizers are always polling their audiences year over year. For example, if it’s a women’s conference, what are your challenges? What are you still struggling with? All that information enables you as a moderator to steer the conversation to a place that’s valuable for the audience. You should be armed with that information when you step on stage so that you can have that in mind as a lens or filter as you’re soliciting these stories from your panel so that you can translate it to the audience.

I don’t mean to overwhelm. This is why the moderator role is difficult and challenging, but in a wonderful way. You have multiple agendas. You have your own agenda, you’re thinking about the audience and what they need to learn, and you’re also thinking about enabling the panelists to tell the best stories shared in the prep call. How do I tee that up for them? How do I make sure that they have the opportunity and I open the door so that they can share that one story that they’re the proudest of in terms of their professional accomplishments?

I’m always thinking about these things. It’s a challenge because as they’re answering a question, you’re preparing for where you’re going to take the group next. It’s a weird thing, but as soon as I ask a question and a panelist starts to answer, I’m back into my notes thinking about where it’s going to go next. Who have I not heard from in a while? Whose story relates to the point that’s being made now that I can invite next? I go back in. I’m there, but I’m not there. I’m thinking about where I’m going to take it next.

Directionally, panels can go a lot of different places depending on the energy and the things that are said. I think the worst panels are the ones that don’t breathe. They’re the ones that, clearly, somebody is working through their list of questions in order and you can see the mechanics of it—how the sausage is being made. Those won’t rise to the level of an art form.

If you’re a beginning moderator, it’s completely fine to do it that way. Just know that there is an aspiration for you to get to the point where you’ve got your questions, you did your prep, and somebody could grab your notes and throw them away. You need to be present and let your curiosity guide you, let your intuition guide you, see where the panelists want to go and ride the wave.

To me, that’s the higher form. You did your preparation, you’ve got some key concepts in mind, but ultimately, you throw your notes away, you go where the group wants to go, you let your curiosity guide you, and you have a sense for where the audience is responding, reacting, laughing. At some point, you can feel the attention of the audience. You can tell, if something’s silent in a good way, people are really listening. But if it’s silent in an “I’m multitasking” way—

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: Then you think, “I’d better step this up really fast.”

DOUG FORESTA: Do you know what’s interesting about that? I learned this from my theater days. If people are touching their face, that’s a really good sign.

JENNIFER BROWN: No kidding?

DOUG FORESTA: We touch our face when we’re emotional. If you watch Disney movies, you’ll always see people touching their face if you watch the audience. If people are touching their face, that’s always a good sign. I’ll just throw that in there.

JENNIFER BROWN: And not their device. That’s good.

DOUG FORESTA: And not their device, exactly. We have to wrap it up in a few, but I want to ask you, since you wrote the book on inclusion, you’ve talked a little bit about this, but I want to ask you the question directly: What does inclusion look like on a panel?

JENNIFER BROWN: Panels are one of those things that Twitter is going crazy over. Who’s selected for panels? Who gets time on stage? Who doesn’t? People scrutinize the gender and ethnicity of panels and moderators.

Going back to how we began this episode, Doug, this is why it’s so important to put ourselves forward and offer to do these things, to have our voice on that stage—particularly if we are underrepresented or part of a marginalized group in a workplace, in an industry, at an event.

We’ve got to put ourselves forward or put someone else forward who is a diverse voice, a voice that is not heard often. It’s so important for the audience to see a role model. It speaks volumes about your event. If you are an organizer and you’re not paying attention to the mix of who’s on your stage, it’s inexcusable in this day and age. Yet, it happens all the time. That’s why you’ll see something blow up on Twitter. A speaker agenda will be announced at a tech conference and everybody will just go nuts because there are no women on a panel that is allegedly about the Me Too movement and gender parity. This stuff still happens.

Be a part of that change. If you’re the organizer, notice it. If you’re on a panel, notice it. If you’re being invited or if you think you’d be a great panelist, make sure you get your voice heard, particularly if you’re not represented in a conversation. People will be really grateful for it.

There is the complaint of, “We can’t find any diverse panelists. We can’t find any women that are experts on XYZ.” We’ve got to all be part of removing that alleged obstacle. I say “alleged” because we all know it’s not true. For example, the reason a woman expert in VR can’t be found is only because your network is limited and you’re hanging out with people who look like you. That’s the only reason. They’re out there.

In my experience, one underrepresented panelist knows many more. If you tap into a vein of these voices, you’ll find that these voices know other voices. My network is maybe going to be more female and more women of color because it’s who I’m looking for, it’s who I’m paying attention to. If you access me, you access all sorts of people in my network.

For organizers, it’s a failure of networks, failure of imagination, failure of being persistent and looking beyond the obvious choices. Remember, for every woman who’s listening to this, there are ten men who are probably putting themselves forward for things that you’re not putting yourself forward for.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s right.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’ve got to know that’s happening. For every person of color who is listening to this, there’s a white colleague who’s saying, “Of course I’ll be on that. Yes, I’m going to ask my friend to be on that panel with me.” You’ve got to know, that’s what’s happening.

We have to interrupt that. We need to be interrupters if we have a platform for making these choices. If you’re a man who’s being asked to be on a panel, one of the big ally behaviors that you can exhibit is questioning whether you are the right voice to be on a panel. Do you need that visibility? Could someone else appreciate that visibility? It would be good for the audience to see someone in your stead.

It feels a little like sacrificing your spot, but maybe you’ve been on 25 panels this year. Do you really need to be on another?

DOUG FORESTA: Do you need the 26th? Right. Exactly. Is that 26th going to put you over the top?

JENNIFER BROWN: Or do you need to moderate? I would give you a pass if you say, “Okay, I’m going to moderate this panel, but I’m going to totally switch up who the panel is. I’m going to diversify that. I might be a white guy moderator, and I’m going to bring in all women of color on this tech panel. That’s my commitment, and I’m going to go find them.”

By the way, you end up bonding with people who you do panels with. I cannot tell you, it’s broadened my network enormously to put out a call on Twitter and say, “I’m looking for women of color technologists in XYZ field,” because that’s the conference that I’ve been invited to moderate at. I get so many amazing people coming through who I never knew.

These are great, great networking tools. You’ve got to ask the question: Who is not represented here? How can I be part of diversifying that? Whether you end up on the panel or not, whether you end up moderating is less important. The bigger good is to be a champion for inclusion. That means whatever your role is or is not selfishly, you are ensuring that diverse voices are getting on the stage. That is paramount. That’s a big call-out for me.

I did a panel at the Forum for Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis in February or March of this past year. Two-thirds of my panel were blind professionals. It was incredible to partner with them in terms of how I would moderate. It made me realize that we take so much for granted about how and when we physically get on the stage, and the cues that we give as moderators that are visual, for example, gesturing to someone to indicate that it’s their turn to speak. It challenged me to communicate to Kathy Martinez, one of my panelists from Wells Fargo, who is a dear friend and a previous guest on The Will to Change. I indicated to her verbally that I was teeing her up for a question.

It’s important to be cognizant of the language that we use. Sometimes in the disability space, inclusion on a panel is going to take some overt behaviors and calibration with your panelists. It took it to a whole different level to make sure that everybody’s voice was heard, and I was bringing out their best and enabling them to be comfortable on the stage.

It’s interesting to tune into how they were sensing the audience and each other. When you’re sight impaired, feeling the energy of the audience and responding to other panelists. It was fascinating. It was a different learning opportunity for me to be of service in that context.

As we’re being inclusive with panels, we ask the question of each panelist, “How can I make your experience most successful?” Invite that question, then somebody can offer, “I’m a little hard of hearing, here’s something that I need.”

Similarly, being inclusive means asking people, “What question would you most like to be asked? What would you like to offer?” versus being overly directive about the agenda and the questions. That’s an inclusion tactic.

Most of all, make sure that people have equal air time. I’ve seen this happen even on panels of women. I’ve seen this happen where one particular female panelist will just take over. It is your job as a moderator to balance the voices and make sure you are redirecting someone who’s talking too much, you’re inviting somebody who’s not talking enough to intentionally share. You’re always directing traffic with inclusion in mind.

I’m thinking about another lens to add. Are we getting through the questions we need to get to? Are we hearing from everybody equally? That can be tricky. It means you have to cut some people off; it means that you have to invite others to jump in and weigh in. I find that all people need is an invitation to share. They will do the rest of the work for you. You’re going to have quieter voices on panels, you just are. It’s your job as a moderator to ensure it’s a good experience for everyone and that nobody feels they got too much or too little air time.

One final thing, Doug. The Q&A process could be its own minisode in and of itself. There is some really great technology out there that is very inclusive. When passing the microphone in a big room, you’re going to hear from the loudest, most confident voices. I really love these technologies, like Slido, where people can text in their questions to you as a moderator, or you can work with someone in the front row to tee up questions that are coming through the virtual network. People can vote different questions up and down that come in over the text. You can get some of those questions that the audience wants to know, but maybe somebody didn’t feel confident enough to raise their hand grab the microphone.

It’s an inclusive practice to utilize some of these text-driven Q&A vehicles. As a moderator, you get to have that on an iPad in front of you or have somebody from the audience stand up and say, “Jennifer, we have a question from the audience that got a lot of likes. I want to give that to you.” Then you turn to the panel and get their responses, weigh in, et cetera.

Inclusion can be practiced through the utilization of some of these technologies. I’m grateful for that because it’s cool to be able to hear the audience, hear what’s on their minds, and not just have the loudest or most confident speaker belly up to the microphone and get their question answered.

DOUG FORESTA: We’ve all been to those.

JENNIFER BROWN: We all know those audience members.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Jennifer, this has been amazing. What’s great about it is it’s a combination of inspiring diverse voices to step up to the stage, and then the practical aspect of how we do it. Thank you so much for sharing both that inspiration piece and also your lived experience of how to do this.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing, Doug. I hope to hear a lot more voices from our audience up on the stage. Let’s go!

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. Thank you. Thanks, everyone.