Home > Blogging, Digital, Work > How to Moderate a VIP Panel

How to Moderate a VIP Panel

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Heather & me (see my listening face?)

I had a ball at the Mom 2.0 Summit in Houston last week. The highlight? Moderating  a VIP panel – or perhaps I should say VIB (Very Important Blogger) – and living to tell the tale.  Did I mention Heather (aka Dooce) Armstrong was one of those panelists? More on that in a minute.

Here’s how it went down. I had submitted a panel idea to the conference organizers about “Bloggers, Brands and the New Publishing Paradigm.” The topic sprang from a post I wrote last year about how marketers and PR people need to rethink how they approach bloggers; it got nice response and you can read it here.  I was jazzed when the idea was accepted and designated the closing keynote panel.  I figured I’d be one of the panelist and that was great.

Several weeks later I got a note from Laura Mayes (one of the Mom 2.0 organizers and a thoroughly spectacular human being) that I’m actually going to be the moderator and the other panelists will be announced shortly.  I’m excited and just a teeny bit anxious because good moderating takes some prep and I now need to work this into my hot mess of a schedule.

Another couple of days goes by and then I see this In Laura’s Twitter stream:


Zoink. I’m moderating three of the most popular bloggers known to man including Heather Armstrong who (for those of you who don’t know) is arguably one of the most famous (and often controversial) bloggers in the galaxy?

My moderator prep anxiety has now gone defcon level 5. And here’s where I must make a confession. I’m a pretty cool cucumber when it comes to professional stuff but you know who gives me the willies? Male CEOs and Very Important Lady Bloggers. Don’t ask me to explain, it’s complicated and for all I know rooted in Freudian issues. Suffice it to say I was nervous about reaching out to Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle to get the ball rolling on panel prep.

But I did and in my neurotic  hyper-organized way — as if preparing an important client for a presentation — start hurling emails into the ether with suggestions about discussion topics and Q & A and conference calls…want to guess how well that went?

Right. Not terribly. 

Very Important Lady Bloggers are important for a reason. They are busy. They are focused on their blogs (which are their businesses) and their families. With three weeks to go before the conference my anal-retentive discussion guides were not yet a priority in their minds.

Well, they were MY priority and there’s the problem. I was not reading my audience. I was prepping on my terms, not theirs. Which leads me to the most important advice I can offer to anyone preparing to moderate a VIP panel:

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I don’t care how fancy-pants you are, if you’re moderating a big-deal panel you will be eclipsed. As it should be. You are not the headliner, you are the facilitator who if you’re smart will make the headliners look great.

Cutting to the chase, I will tell you the panel went off really well. It all came together perfectly (if not a little last-minute.) Heather, Maggie and Gabrielle were lovely, created content that made the presentation visual and dynamic, and generally rocked the dais.

Moderating a panel of this stature is kind of like being a jockey – or maybe a rodeo rider is a better analogy (we were in Texas, after all). You climb onboard that filly and do your best to stay on. You listen, you listen some more, you roll with the punches and adjust the questions based on the flow of the discussion. You take the mike only to ask the next question or to clarify a point.

You are not the show. Did I mention already that it’s about them, not you?

I’ve been in the audience for panels where the moderator hogged the spotlight. I’ve been on the panel when the moderator ceded control of the discussion to unruly audiences. My goal was to make sure neither of those things happened and based on the crowd reaction, I think we just may have accomplished it.

Fiona Bryan live-blogged the panel here if you want to check it out.

[Image via Sarah Hubbell]

UPDATE:  More great posts about Mom 2.0 from women a) I want to be when I grow up except that I’m older than all of them; b) should come to my house for a slumber party so I can braid their hair and c) I am inspired by constantly…

Gabrielle “Design Mom” Blair (from the aforementioned panel) here

Maggie “Mighty Girl” Mason (also from aforementioned panel) here  

Liz “Mom 101” Gumbiner here

Jenny “The Bloggess” Lawson (who my god I love so much it makes my eyeballs hurt) posted not once but twice

  1. February 24, 2010 at 10:32 am

    You did a great job. You’re right – moderating is difficult. I’ve been on both sides of this situation and while I believe that you’re correct that you aren’t the show, as you say, the show generally works or doesn’t in large part because of you. And when it doesn’t work, it’s very awkward.

    I have heard all of these women speak before and this was my favorite time, because it was informative and relaxed- I wasn’t focused on WHO they were as much as what they had to share, as related to who they are and what they’ve accomplished.

    • ssmirnov
      February 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm

      Laurie, thanks so much for the comment. And boy are you right about the awkward potential, nothing worse!

  2. February 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Stephanie, your topic and your questions were excellent. You did an amazing job. The panel went off without a hitch and it was all due to you.

    Also. I owe you deep apologies for not a) not connecting with you until the day before the conference and b) getting you my slides the MORNING of. Yikes.

    • ssmirnov
      February 24, 2010 at 1:01 pm

      Thx for commenting, Gabrielle! Please, no apology necessary. The point of the post was that I realize how insanely I try to micromanage every aspect of my life — including panelists — and that sometimes you need to put your own needs aside and just go with the flow. Your slides in paticular were a smash hit, well worth any last minute perspiration we may have shed! I loved working with you and hope to again soon.

  3. February 24, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Stephanie, I told Laura this, and I want to be sure I told you too, you are one of the best moderators I’ve seen or worked with. Everything went so smoothly, and all of us were able to be comfortable because you gave us a safe place on stage. I can’t thank you enough.

    • ssmirnov
      February 24, 2010 at 8:24 pm

      {blushing} Maggie you are very welcome indeed! It was truly a pleasure. Oh, and therapeutic too, as you can see from the post 😉

  4. February 25, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    You were completely awesome. True story.

  5. February 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    You did a brilliant job moderating that panel! You were obviously well prepared, and you succeeded at keeping the conversation moving without everyone straying from the topic.

  6. March 3, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    What a wonderful story, truly. Only sorry I couldn’t have seen it unfold in person.

  1. February 25, 2010 at 3:18 am
  2. February 25, 2010 at 11:16 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: