Better conference moderators equals better nonprofit conversations.

I really enjoyed this week. You see it was Alumni Week at work, an opportunity to invite folks back to campus and be inspired through engaging panels, tours and coffees, lots of coffees. As you know I’m on the record as previously describing my role as just drinking coffee and connecting people (As you can imagine, this resulted in me receiving an understandably fair rebuke from my CEO due to it reeking of privilege).

However, connecting individual people to opportunity is by far one of the highlights of my roles in the field, demonstrating the real convening power of anchor institutions such as universities, community foundations and the like.

This in essence is what Alumni Week was set up to achieve – to convene, connect and through the numerous panels I joined, to be challenged. I reflect on the week that was through the lens of a moderator, of which I was one in a conversation about higher ed philanthropy.

You see, I’m starting to really think the role of moderator is lost. A lost opportunity. A lost opportunity to curate a truly special moment on behalf of those that have made the time to attend, a lost opportunity to forge a deeper connection with the subject matter, a lost opportunity to weave that moment into action.

I have been to a number of events and conferences in the past 6 or so months that in-person events are starting to be reintroduced and I’m starting to see a pattern that you can’t unsee once seen and that’s the outrageous under utilising of the moderator role. How much longer should we tolerate bad moderating? How much longer should we tolerate a risk averse, soft ball form of q&a that is led by a sponsors delegate rather than someone that know’s and experiences the nuances of the subject matter?. In short, how long will we tolerate wasted opportunities to dynamically uplift our work rather than just go through the motions.

And by the motions I mean, 10 mins of intro’s and housekeeping, 30 minutes of ‘conference theatre’ (prepared questions and responses), 10 minutes of audience Q&A, and then a thank you for coming, bereft of any actionable outcomes that ties all of it together. Outcomes, not outputs. Cause and effect. A story arc where you come to a conclusion rather than turning off the mics in the relentless pursuit of remaining ‘on time’.

Moderators should act as the audiences representative, acting both as a knowledge broker, connector and interpreter of the sessions concepts, acting as a bridge for people seeking
answers to questions on one side and those who have the answers on the other.

The defining traits of a moderator should include translating technical info or hard
numbers into something more accessible and understandable and providing links to knowledge, market insights, and research evidence while helping to convert that into practical tools, actions, and narratives. This role should become increasingly important, especially in the nonprofit space because knowledge is a precious commodity these days, especially with the rapid advances in technology and the way we do, understand, and interact with things. Also lets not forget that COVID deprived us of these amazing learning opportunities).

Moderators must start acting as the “link” between people or groups, including the experts that have been invited to join them on the stage. I would go as far as saying that the skills needed to be effective in this type of role are:

  1. Relating to people with a broad range of backgrounds.
  2. Understanding different ways of thinking.
  3. Understanding the different contexts in which information can be used and shared.
  4. Being able to critically analyze evidence.

These are the core skills I want to identify and lift up when selecting a moderator for a conference panel. Philanthropy needs a mix of real expertise and the savvy to connect the dots with key people and organizations. These individuals don’t need advanced credentials in the subject matter. Those who have an active interest in the field—and who can articulate that knowledge strategically—can be just as, if not more, effective than those they are questioning, especially when the audience should be the beneficiary of the information and the determinant of an event’s success.

So if I was to provide some tips for organisers of nonprofit conferences when it comes to selecting moderators and their roles during the process I would say…(riffing on a great article in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘How To Moderate A Panel Like A Pro by Scott Kirsner)

Don’t prep with your panelists. Many moderators imagine they are running a Congressional hearing, not a panel discussion. They hold pre-panel conference calls, and write lengthy e-mails back and forth hashing out the terrain each speaker intends to cover. Avoid that as much as possible. Your goal is to be a group of smart, funny people on-stage having a dynamic conversation. That doesn’t mean that you as a moderator shouldn’t research your panelists and their work so that you can come up with appropriate questions. My advice is to send your panelists a single pre-event e-mail, listing three questions you plan to open with, and asking them if there are any other issues they think are important to cover. At the event, socialize with your panelists and make sure everyone has met one another, but resist the urge to talk about what you’re going to talk about on-stage.

The best panels are those that largely go unscripted and feel more like you are part of a conversation rather than being spoken to. Natural and authentic is key.

Moderators can’t also be panelists. Just as an orchestra conductor would never whip out his viola to play a solo, your job is to encourage your panelists to give great performances. Once you start chiming in or rebutting panelists, the balance gets thrown off. You just can’t play both roles at once. (And just as a conductor would, you also need to be firm about not letting certain panelists dominate the discussion.)

State your objective at the outset. Don’t write a long-winded introduction. Two sentences will do. Why is this topic important now, and what do you hope to accomplish within the next hour. “With all of the publicity around ChatGPT, everyone is thinking about AI. Our objective with our time today is to share some of the thinking about how AI can make us more effective in our roles rather than taking our jobs”

Never let the panelists introduce themselves. It’s the moderator’s job but be as brief as you can, especially if the audience is holding a program guide with lengthier bios in it. Three lines is the absolute longest anyone’s introduction should be. No one cares where each panelist worked 17 years ago and just them being on the stage legitimizes their expertise on the subject matter.

Involve the audience within the first five minutes. This lets your audience know that you’re aware of them, and it keeps your panelists from acting as if they’re in a bubble. You can ask a few people to introduce themselves just by name, title, and company, to get a sense for who is in the audience. A quirky way to engage audience members is to ask them to applaud or boo in response to questions. “Have you ever had a great idea for improving the retention of staff? Please applaud.” “OK, now, have you ever found it difficult to get the necessary resources or support to actually help them grow? Please boo.” It livens up the room.

Don’t go down the line every time. By the time the fifth panelist is answering the same question as four other people have answered, the odds they will contribute something interesting have dropped almost to zero. When you ask a question, two answers is plenty, unless a third person is dying to jump in. Instead, ask a related question, ask for a concrete example, or simply shift gears and ask your other panelists about something else.

Invite panelists to ask each other questions. When you send out your pre-panel email, or when you chat with panelists on-site, ask them to think of one question they’d like to ask their fellow panelists. Often, these questions are sharper or more provocative than the questions on your list — and panelists are often more candid when one of their peers asks them a question, as opposed to the “official moderator.”

Don’t ask panelists for “one final thought.” The lamest way to conclude a panel is by giving each panelist an opportunity for a concluding oration. Typically, they’ll recap what they’ve already said, or look to their notes and cough up some uninteresting musing they didn’t have time to get to (usually for good reason.) Use the time instead for a last question from the audience, or for something forward-looking. “What important new trend will we be talking about at next year’s conference?” “What’s your counter-intuitive, half-crazy prediction about the next five years in our industry?”

Make an ask. I sometimes think we put on conferences for the sake of putting together conferences. How can participants apply their knowledge today, what actions might they take? If you are discussing the lack of women in leadership, give them options to help tackle that issue like mentoring or funding a scholarship.

On reflection I stepped close to the third rail on many of the tips I suggested, so why this particular hypocritical gripe? Look, every time someone from our field steps foot on a stage to speak, I hope that they present the best versions of themselves, their work and the field at large. An underwhelming moderator can stifle remarkably refreshing and candid conversations that can inspire action and ideas. At a time when our society needs them the most, let’s at least try and set those doing amazing work up to successfully share their stories and insights and create a lasting connection with those that were intrigued by the subject matter and looking to learn more.

Next time we are thinking of who to moderate a panel, let’s spend a little more time than we normally do, it’ll be worth the time, I assure you.

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