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10 Tips for Moderating a Panel or Interview

Preacher at Lecturn The not-so-secret cabal gathered to discuss one of our pet peeves: terrible panel moderators. (The same applies to interviewers).

Too often it feels like an event or venue scores the famous author and then calls it a day. Why worry about the moderator? Who couldn't interview Stephen King? Or get a good quote out of China Mieville? Shockingly, a lot of people can't. 

There's nothing worse than getting hyped up to see a favorite author, only to have the experience ruined by a lazy, ill-prepared or just-plain-bad moderator. And we've seen some appalling ones in action.

Not to belittle the effort: moderating a panel or interviewing a guest is very, very difficult. Which is why it should be taken seriously, and not left to chance and/or the intern. In devising our tips, we've combined fan experience and professional experience, so, for once, we're not just completely making shit up. 

So, without further ado, 10 tips for those in the nerve-wracking position of moderating the panel or interviewing a guest author....

Before the panel:

1) Familiarize yourself with the equipment. Practice with the mic, make sure there are batteries & figure out where the record button is. Do all this before the audience arrives.

2) Do your research. We've seen some colossally embarrassing goofs by the moderator. That book isn't part of that series. That book is by a completely different author. And that's just the extreme. You should know everything & have a solid plan in place, with the opening questions set in stone.

3) Get the admin down. Manage expectations about the length of the panel or interview, be clear about when the audience can answer questions, give decisive instructions about queues for the signing. You may not be the event coordinator or the bookshop owner, but for 45 minutes, everyone will be listening to you for instructions.

During the panel:

4) Define your terms Especially in panel discussions, the debate can get quite intense. If you're talking about "faith" or "science" or "Tolkien", make sure that the terms are defined, and everyone is knows exactly which aspects or books are being discussed. 

5) Be flexible. Your planned approach probably won't work out. Follow the author's lead (to a degree) - if they're keen to talk about their next book, go with it, even if you don't have pre-planned questions in that area. This is especially important with audience questions. They'll go all over the place.

6) Provide simple context when you ask your questions. This is a tricky balance. Introduce Altered Carbon as the author's first book to give background - but don't give away the ending. 

7) Make sure everyone is speaking. As the moderator, you have to make sure that everyone on the panel gets a fair shot. You need to encourage and prompt conversation, to keep the discussion flowing. 

8) Don't ever, ever reinterpret questions from an audience member. It is arrogant and rude. Even if they're asking something colossally stupid, that's not in your remit. A member of the crowd has to muster the courage to stand up and ask their question. Having it re-phrased and, more painfully, re-jigged by the moderator is painful. 

Keep in mind:

9) It's not about you. Nobody, and I mean nobody, paid £5 or trekked down from Leeds to hear you speak. If you find yourself starting sentences with "For me...", you're going down the wrong path. Your interpretation of the author's work is completely irrelevant. And save your scintillating personal anecdotes for the cocktails afterwards.

10) Don't be a dick. Don't belittle the author. Don't shamelessly name-drop. Don't shush an audience member. Don't flog your own agenda. Don't interrupt anyone. Don't mock a member of the audience.

Agree? Disagree? Have you had an appalling moderator/interview experience, and want to vent? Have you been a moderator, and had an appalling audience or interviewee experience? Share your stories and feedback in the comments.