How to Be a Good Moderator in 4 Simple Steps

Conference Mar 25, 2022 Ver este post en Español

Moderators wear many hats. They must be timekeepers, directors, and enforcers. They must also possess other pertinent skills, like people, communication, and public speaking skills.

This article explains how to bring those skills and responsibilities out and become a good moderator at an academic conference, talks about the challenges some moderators may face and gives you additional tips if you’re a moderator for a virtual conference. You’ll also see how Orvium can ease some struggles you may have.

4 Steps on How to Be a Good Moderator

If you’re a new researcher just now embarking on your career, moderating a session for a conference in your field is one of the best ways to develop your professional network. You’ll be able to connect with peers, meet senior experts and researchers in your field, and benefit your research program.

However, for some, that very public role may be overwhelming at first. If that’s you, follow these steps to ease your nerves.

Step 1: Prepare Your Panelists in Advance

One of the biggest mistakes a moderator can make is not giving panelists ample time to prepare before their presentation. After selecting the right speakers and meeting them all, ensure they’re prepared to speak and don’t feel overwhelmed.

Consider sharing your draft questions in advance, sending a few emails getting their thoughts on the discussion topic, or having a pre-event conference call. Also, politely ask presenters to respect their time slots so the event remains on track and everyone gets a chance to speak.

Step 2: Ensure an Excellent Audience Experience

As moderators, you act as advocates for the audience by asking the presenters/panelists the right questions and ensuring a thought-out discussion. You want to keep panelists from going off-topic or turning the discussion into a long monologue that bores the audience. Think about it this way: if the event organizers wanted that panelist to hold a monologue, they would’ve given them a keynote.

Consider politely cutting speakers off with a positive statement or try getting their attention with a subtle hand gesture. You may discuss these points prior to them starting their presentation, hence, the importance of preparing your panelists ahead of time. Explain when and how you’ll indicate how much time passed (usually at the 12-14 minute mark for a 15-minute time slot).

Step 3: Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Power

Don’t take a hands-off approach to the discussion; add order and interest instead. For example, if you have an entire panel in front of you, direct the conversation appropriately to avoid any awkward silence or panelists trying to figure out who should respond to your question. Don’t allow the most outspoken panelist to outshine the other voices, either.

Consider giving everyone a fair turn at answering questions, directing a question to a specific speaker (gearing your head towards them or saying their name), and researching all the panelists in advance to know which topics are familiar to them. Additionally, try to make your questions as concise and understandable as possible while remaining neutral.

Step 4: Embrace the Role of the Middleman

You must keep everyone on topic, choreograph multiple leaders’ interactions, and continuously explore deeper insights as the middleman (between the panelists and audience). That means that you’re asking the questions that the audience wishes they could.

When panelists say something confusing, unclear, or even interesting or fresh, consider following up in any of these ways:

  • Could you expand on that idea/topic/answer?
  • Tell me more about X.
  • What do you mean by that?

What Challenges Can a Moderator Face at an Academic Conference?

As a conference moderator, you may run into some challenges, but it’s crucial to remember that no one is perfect, and you must communicate clearly. Some of the challenges that moderators may run into include:

  • A presenter goes over the allotted time
  • Panelists start an argument on stage following a question
  • The audience wants to ask too many questions
  • You mispronounce a speaker’s name
  • A speaker has a medical emergency.

Although some of these challenges are extremely rare, below you’ll find solutions:

  • Have a way to keep track of time and begin all sessions on time
  • Introduce the presenter at the beginning of each talk, ensuring you speak clearly; remember, you must learn how to pronounce each speaker’s name and their presentation title correctly and you may also choose to include a fun fact about the presenter or maybe an inside joke they approve prior to their session
  • Politely interrupt a session if necessary. What may be embarrassing at that moment can pay off later. Humor sometimes works, depending on your approach and personal style
  • If a speaker’s session continues for a longer time, ensure all other speakers still benefit from their full allotted time slots. You may ask the audience to hold any questions until the break to get back to the regular schedule
  • Ensure that you enforce the rules you set out at the beginning of each speech and enforce time signals (especially for the overly talkative speaker). If you feel that a speaker has been talking for too long, your audience most likely thinks so too.

One of the most helpful ways to learn how to handle challenges effectively and moderate at an academic conference is by watching other moderators. You must keep an eye on what works and what you would do differently for your sessions. Something you must never do: move talks from their allotted times (even if a previous talk gets canceled).

Tips For Online Moderators

When you’re moderating an online conference, you may fear it’ll be difficult to engage the audience. However, virtual conferences can be an enriching conversation that gives the audience something valuable to share.

In addition to what you would do for an in-person academic conference, here are some tips to ensure your virtual one is engaging and exciting:

  • Master transitions - connect your words to what the previous panelist/presenter said when it’s your turn to speak, and add to the conversation (offer a different perspective to an idea or continue the idea for the next speaker)
  • Speak directly to other panelists - don’t just engage the audience. Reacting to and bouncing ideas off of each other is even more crucial in a virtual setting
  • Make the presentation sound like a personal conversation - use the words “I” and “you” often and look into the camera or phone as if you’re speaking directly with someone; the goal is to make everyone in the audience (at home or anywhere else) feel like you’re speaking directly to them
  • Help the audience connect the dots - frame your discussion for the audience. Explain what you hope they will take away from the discussion and include the speaker’s background or experience in that context. Don’t be scared of disagreements and find opportunities to stimulate group discussion on particular topics.

Orvium Keeps Everyone on Topic

These four steps on how to be a good moderator can help you craft a wonderful and thoughtful experience for everyone involved. Remember, moderating a panel is not an easy feat, and even the most experienced researchers or top experts in the field can find it challenging. So don’t be intimidated by seniority.

Prepare your next Conference with our new Guide

If you have successfully moderated a conference and are now thinking about planning one, we at Orvium have prepared a complete Guide to Planning an Academic Conference to make things easier for you.

In this guide, we tell you how to prepare a conference step by step, with everything you need to take into account so that you don't leave anything out.

To download it, just click on the button below, fill in a simple form, and you will receive the guide in your email.

We know that it’s nice to get some recognition. That’s why we’re always willing to share how we improve scientific publishing at conferences. Want to find out more? Check out our platform to see our recent publications.


Antonio Romero

Led several big-data and ML projects for the R&D between CERN and multiple ICT market-leaders. His work accelerating predictive-maintenance and machine-learning solutions at CERN