Discussion and debate are hallmarks of social and public policy—and they can generate good ideas for research and policy. These discussions often take the form of a panel, where people debate the merits of a policy, finding, or research approach. Most times, these panels are led by a moderator, who may (or may not) be an expert in the topic of discussion.

With colleagues at the Urban Institute, I helped create a Best Practices for Moderators guide as a tip sheet for people who are going to facilitate a panel discussion. Panel discussions can present an array of challenges for moderators. Panelists may have very different viewpoints, presentation styles, or preparation levels. Their presentations may run over time or be marred by technical difficulties. Audience members may be slow coming up with things to ask during the question-and-answer period, or they may want to express their own views instead of asking questions.

We developed the Guide by first having a small, internal meeting and sketching out a basic list of ideas moderators should consider. We then posted that list in a Google document for anyone to contribute to and advertised it on Twitter, so especially big shout-outs to Meg Massey, Echo Rivera, and Maya Brennan. We then held a larger internal meeting as part of our Better Presentations Group series (more on that at some other time) to curate the list to a workable framework that others can use.

The Guide takes a broad view of the type of event and kinds of panelists. Certain panels will have a more formal feel, with each panelist speaking before moving onto the discussion portion. Others will go right into the panel discussion with the moderator taking a central role managing that discussion. Some discussions may get heated while in others, panelists might largely agree with one another. In either case, the moderator has an important duty to keep the event on time, speakers on point, and generate interesting discussion and debate.

We have structured the document to take a moderator from the planning stages through the end of a panel discussion. The document begins with Overall Preparation, in which we urge moderators to be aware of the audience, who they are, what they already know, and what they are trying to get out of the event. In Conversation with the Event Organizer, we outline certain technical and logistical issues moderators should be aware of. This isn’t to say moderators will be responsible for ordering catering or managing the audio-visual system, but they should know about the agenda, the timing, and the handouts or other information the audience will have.

In the third section, we provide details about a Prep Call Strategy. We encourage moderators (and program organizers) to have a prep call with panelists about a week before the event. This call can help set everyone’s expectations and further lay out the goals of the event and perhaps what overarching point(s) each panelist hopes to convey. The fourth section, Panel Moderation, offers moderators specific strategies for managing the discussion and keeping the audience attentive and energized. Finally, we share some ideas about managing the Question and Answer Period, in which the audience will have an opportunity to ask the panelists specific questions.

The Guide is available on the Urban website in both PDF and Word formats, so you can download it, and remove items you don’t need or add items relevant to your event. We view this guide as a “living document” that will be edited and updated with comments and suggestions. If you have thoughts about the document, or have used it for your own events, please let me know.

See the Best Practices for Moderators Guide


Photo credit: Lydia Thompson, Urban Institute