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Lee Odden

How Not to Suck Being a Conference Moderator or Speaker

By Lee Odden     Marketing PR Conferences, Online Marketing
Best looking audience at PRSA International

A fine looking audience at PRSA International 2010.

There are several roles to be played at successful industry conferences. Most of my experience is specific to Search, PR and Direct Marketing events – assuming social media and interactive fit in there somewhere as well.

What roles? There’s the conference organizer and all that comes with the logistics of running the event, programming content and facilitating sponsors and advertisers.  That also includes an advisory board of some type. There are the paid and media sponsors, exhibitors, delegates, speakers and moderators.  There are also often various volunteers.

All of these roles are important and contribute to the success of the event.  One particular role I’ve played besides speaking, being a media sponsor and serving on the advisory board is to be a session moderator.  I think it’s an essential role in making sessions successful because the moderator serves as an advocate for the attendees to make sure they get what they paid for and hopefully a lot more.

What is a moderator supposed to do? This can vary greatly by conference, but the moderator also has to coordinate the speakers in terms of how their presentations work together, who talks about what, QA of presentations, avoiding overlap, staying on track and prepping them on questions.  The moderator juggles keeping speakers on track but also organized so that they get the exposure they’re hoping for and at the same time, being conscious of the audience, keeping it interesting and on time so there’s time to ask questions at the end. The moderator role is important and often times thankless.

My experience is that the moderator is asked to perform their role after the session topic and speakers have been selected.  Moderators get copied on an email to the speakers with all the details of the session and after that, what happens is anybody’s guess depending on the people involved.

Can moderators make more than the minimum effort? In some instances, the speakers never hear from the moderator until 10 min before the session begins. A smug “You’re all old pros at this so we don’t need any prep, right?” and then at the start of the session: “And now let’s hear from (looks down at conference program) Joe Schmoe. Joe, please introduce yourself.”  Then when each speaker is done (as the red light beeps on the time and doesn’t get reset) “let’s go to audience questions”.

Moderators shouldn’t steal from speakers. I’ve heard one company exec who was moderating a panel say when the session was done: “I’ve taken really good notes during the presentations and if you’d like a copy, just come up and give me your business card.”   What??  Took notes when? While you were moderating?  I still wonder what the speakers thought about that move. Traveling all the way across country for a 15 minute presentation, competing against others that want the same prospects or media coverage only to have the moderator steal the post-presentation thunder by offering liveblog notes taken while they should have been listening and formulating questions during the speaker transitions.

On the other hand, the moderator can reply to the conference email with an introduction and a description of how the session will run, offering speakers opportunities for input, discussion and to get everyone on the same page.  Once the panelists agree on the sequence of topics and how things will run, the only other communication would be right before the event as a reminder.  Panelists should be prepped on what the other speakers will cover, the sequence, what potential transition questions might be and a clear understanding of how long they have to present.

Moderators should set the stage. During the presentation, the moderator should give opening comments, set up the session for context, introduce the speakers, then get out of the way after making sure the PPT decks are properly queued.  During speaker transitions the moderator can ask a question while the next speaker gets their PPT deck on screen and so on until the end.  Depending on the time available for audience Q/A there might be  a need for an opening question to the panel and then a transition to the audience.

As the speakers need to be regulated on time, so do audience members asking questions.  If the question is too detailed or complex, then the person asking can be invited to ask after the panel is over when there’s more time. At then end, the moderator should thank the audience and the panelists and cover any housekeeping items.

There’s a big difference between showing up and being awesome and in the end, it really depends on the people involved. Conferences can set guidelines but if the moderator doesn’t take their role seriously, then the session can become a big disappointment for all.  Some speakers hog presentation time, some moderators start answering questions instead of letting the panelists do so.

Some panelists simply refuse to respond to moderator efforts to coordinate.   The moderator is put in a position of having been asked to do a favor for the conference and help moderate, but the non-responsive panelists see the moderator as some kind of “speaker cop” and ignore them, making the moderator look bad for what has to be, one of the most thankless jobs at a conference. For those types of speakers, I bring an air horn.

So, if you’re a moderator, get off your butt and make an honest attempt to coordinate the panel and understand you’re not there for yourself. You’re there to serve the audience needs and the panelists’.

If you’re a speaker, get off your high horse or busy schedule and work with the moderator to get things synced up so no one’s valuable time is wasted. Working with the moderator should result in a great session for everyone that brings value.  That can turn into lead generation, blogger coverage and industry media coverage as a result. On top of that, a good time and informative time had by all.


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