How Not to Moderate a Panel, Courtesy of The New York Times

Yesterday my wife and I went to a couple panels at the The New York Times’ Sunday With the Magazine event in Times Square. While I’ve read some great posts on moderating panels (see Paul Kedrosky, Guy Kawasaki, Jeremiah Owyang, and Dan Perry), moderator and Times columnist Virgina Heffernan provided some fresh examples of what not to do.

I like Virginia’s writing and blogging, and there’s always a risk in picking speakers as moderators, and it’s greater than the risk of having them speak. Most good writers can put a few thoughts together on the fly and contribute something if it’s their area of expertise, but not everyone can step back orchestrate a panel.

The panel, “What to Watch,” included Bravo TV President Lauren Zalaznick, “Project Runway” fashion gutu Tim Gunn, and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons. It’s hard to get a better lineup than that if you’re moderating, and the speakers were able to rescue the panel, but it wasn’t a great experience like it should have been. Here are a few things that the moderator could have done better, and which any moderator can look out for:

1) Don’t speak more than the panelists. I don’t even think I’m exaggerating when saying that the moderator spoke at least as much as the three panelists combined. It got to the point where when she’d start speaking, I’d cringe and wait for her to let a speaker say something. Most of the time when a speaker did chime in, the speaker was actually cutting off the moderator.

2) Don’t answer your own questions. The moderator was opining left and right, often with astute analysis, but sometimes with some bizarre observations. I kept wondering what the panelists thought, and sometimes I never found out.

3) Ask questions. Many of the questions were statements. She reminded me in a way of Chris Farley’s Saturday Night Live sketches with The Chris Farley Show, where Farley interviewed celebrities and never really asked a question, leaving his guests to squirm uncomfortably (though often graciously) as they waited for the question.

 

4) Remember all your panelists. Most of the questions were addressed to Lauren Zalaznick, and while she provided great insight into the television business, she was only one of three people there. Worse yet, it’s safe to say just about everyone in the room was really there to see Tim Gunn, one of the most beloved TV personalities. Gunn received the fewest questions from the moderator, and unfortunately his answers were always concise and to the point, much like his appearances on “Runway.” The moderator needed to overcompensate for that to give the audience what they wanted.

5) Keep some notes handy. The moderator didn’t have any notes in front of her. While it’s a talent to moderate extemporaneously, she at times seemed unprepared, and perhaps a few note cards would have kept her on track. (On the plus side though, she didn’t try to Twitter the panel. That would not have worked well today.)

6) Tackle the big questions. My wife noted the moderator neglected to ask what’s happening with Project Runway moving from Bravo to Lifetime. We were actually surprised to see Tim Gunn representing Bravo on the panel, though he still has “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.” There’s also some potential turmoil with “Runway” judge Nina Garcia. The moderator missed the opportunity to address these questions. Additionally, it took an audience member to ask if the producers ever meddle in decisions of who to boot off a show. (The panelists were adamant the producers never do this. Gunn even said once he was so surprised about a decision that he stormed into the producers’ office and accused them off interfering, and they showed him that the judges were solely responsible, as their rating cards proved.)

We also attended the panel after, where writer and author Matt Bai interviewed New York Governor David Paterson. The session felt entirely different. It didn’t hurt that Paterson was brilliant, quick, candid, and genuinely happy to be there, but all those traits could have been said about the previous session’s panelists (though Paterson gave one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen – such a treat, and he was supposedly the drier subject).

Bai, as Paterson’s moderator, got in the big questions (spending a lot of time on Paterson’s relationship with former governor Eliot Spitzer and how the transition went) to the personal (Paterson’s blindness, and his previous marriage issues) to current events (what to make of Reverend Wright?). Bai’s questions were brief – even getting in a lightning round, he showed a sense of humor without upstaging the governor (who could hardly be upstaged), and he managed to constantly ask questions that Paterson could answer. If the Times does release the views from the event, watch those two to learn how it’s done.

 

 

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