Lee Odden

How Not to Suck Being a Conference Moderator or Speaker

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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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. I’m starting to do more speaking gigs these days and always appreciate any advice I can get.
    Thanks Lee.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (http://sysomos.com)

    ps- I can pick myself out in that picture you used. I’m the one standing in the back left corner in the red sweater.

    • Glad its helpful. Rants can be productive sometimes 🙂 I should put the photo up on Facebook and invite everyone in it to tag themselves…

  2. Good ideas. On being a great moderator, I would add more on Research, Creative and Planning. This involves delving into the top qualities of the speakers and their previous speeches or writing, current thinking among gurus in the field on the topic of the day, and having smart questions ready to stimulate discussion should things lag.

  3. This. Is. Awesome.

    Kudos for highlighting the moderator’s role in a successful conference. People don’t think of the moderators much – heck, they’re just the folks making the speaker introductions, right? But there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes…

    The best panels are where the moderator coordinated presentations and speaking times prior to the event (rather than giving the “You’re all old pros” speech you mentioned – funny!) It’s an incredibly important step to make sure that the panelists are all on the same page, and there’s an appropriate level of presentation overlap.

    During the panel, the moderator needs to be 100% alert and on track. If a speaker misspeaks and says something they didn’t mean to (happens all the time,) the moderator is the one who gently gets the audience back on track without making the speaker look bad. If a really, really great point was made, the moderator can highlight it. And when Q & A comes around, like you mentioned, the moderator makes sure that the audience gets their questions answered – and all panelists have a chance to participate.

    Does the moderator get a lot of business from being a moderator? Typically not. Since it’s their job to make the speakers look good, they probably aren’t making themselves “front and center” during the panel. But having moderated numerous panels, I gotta say that the experience of “Wow, this all came together – and it really rocked” is well worth it.

    Thanks again, Lee, for highlighting an often-forgotten (but crucial) conference roll!

  4. Awesome post, Lee. I’ve moderated a few times, and setting the stage is really important.

    One of the things I’ve found is also useful is to get the pulse of the audience right off the bat; eg by asking, “How many people work in ___, ___” and so on, to understand why they might be there (after all, they want to get something out of the session to take back and apply to their jobs, right?).

    Also, on social media-oriented panels, to find out what level of comfort/familiarity/experience people have with SM; even today I see quite a few folks who consider themselves beginners, and it’s good to know who your panelists are speaking to, so that they can tailor their comments accordingly.

    Also as part of setting the stage, it can be helpful to explain to the audience how much time will be spent on the panelists’ presentations/interaction with the moderator, and how much time there will be for Q&A.

    • Shonali, you are another first class speaker and moderator (one of the few) – thank you for your insight. Setting the stage and qualifying the audience is indeed very helpful. I hope you are feeling better BTW 🙂

  5. You have to see yourself as an actor and learn to play a role onstage.

    Still be true to who you are but a few acting (sorry presentation) lessons never hurt 🙂

  6. i haven’t been reading about this lately , Great ! loved the point when you said that there’s a big difference between showing up and being awesome cause that make sense for me and i agree with it as well as the restt !! wel Done 🙂

  7. This is a great post, Lee. Many people are not taking their job seriously, but you made an excellent point here. And made my jaw drop with the comment how a moderator made “an offer” to the audience (and, no, it wasn’t “what an awesome idea” going through my head when that happened) =) A good moderator will comunicate with the speaker(s) before the event if they know their business.

  8. Thanks for the post. I have an upcoming speaking event and it was a great reminder to keep the lines of communication open and be prepared in order to create the best experience for everyone possible.

  9. Avatar Lisa Raehsler says

    There are a lot of good points about the moderator role. I once had to practically beg a moderator to have a phone call to coordinate speakers content. It doesn’t take long for a mod to prep for a session. The results will be more polished and professional from at least a few quick chats. Thanks!