Take charge and gracefully interrupt: Media trainer Tim Braun’s guide to moderating

Over the last month, media trainer Tim Braun has taught us the skills needed to speak at IRL events and how to master the art of the virtual panel. But moderators just might have the most difficult public speaking gigs of all. Whether presiding over a panel or a fireside chat, a moderator must act as a neutral leader in the discussion, holding participants to time limits and keeping them from straying off the topic. AKA, herding cats.

For more than twenty years, Braun has given speakers the tools to express themselves with clarity and confidence. As a seasoned journalist with an impressive background in live television production — and all of the split-second decisions that come with it — he knows how to drill down and find the “good parts” of any story.

I caught up with Braun to learn how to balance information with performance, where to present the most interesting information and why compelling stories matter more than equal attention.

Samantha Stallard: Some people may think that public speaking skills translate to moderating, but in my experience it’s a whole different ball game. What skills does it take to become a successful moderator?

Tim Braun: One of the first things we talk about when we do these moderating sessions is taking charge. You are the person driving the train, and you shouldn’t be afraid to wield your power to get that train in on time. Pay attention to the time, and gracefully interrupt anyone speaking too long. It’s very, very important that you take charge.

The moderator’s role — aside from taking charge — is to bring energy to the panel, because you’re the one who sets the tone onstage. Usually it requires a bigger energy than you’re used to. Dial it up, for both the audience and the panelists. It’s funny; sometimes smart people have a problem with this. They think information should rule the day, and they don’t want to perform. But you can and should do both when you’re a moderator.

Keep the conversation clear and simple, but simple does not mean dumbed down. It means conversational and straightforward, avoiding jargon and stop words. I often share the Mark Twain quote, “I would’ve written a shorter letter if only I’d had more time.” The panel is not about the moderator, so leave your ego at the door. You’re not there to talk about yourself — you’re there to help other people speak well.

SS: How should moderators prepare for a panel?

TB: We go through a whole section on panel prep. First, know your headline. Before the panel, make sure you are crystal clear on the topic, because if you aren’t, your audience won’t be either. If you can, contact your panelists in advance for a 20-minute prep call. Discuss what the single most important idea or question they all want to get across is. I shouldn’t have to watch the whole panel to know the main takeaways. State that big headline in your opening remarks.

Then, craft a really powerful opening. The most important real estate is your opening and closing remarks. Many people zone out in the middle, and we don’t want them to miss the good stuff. Start with a compelling statistic, if you have one, to grab attention. Take the audience on a journey with your language, or use humor if it comes naturally to you.

Keep introductions short, and do not allow panelists to introduce themselves. That is panel suicide. You do it, and you do it quickly. You also have to vary the pace of your questions to add energy and vibrancy to the panel. Some of them can be rapid fire — or ask for a show of hands from the audience — while others elicit longer stories. Uniformity is boring. Question, answer. Question, answer. It’s the easiest way to put your audience to sleep.

It seems obvious, but arrive early to see how it feels to be up on that stage and where you’ll be sitting. Sometimes moderators think they need to include everyone. Don’t feel that way, and don’t ever ask more than two people the same question. By the time you get to three and four, they’re essentially reiterating what the others have said.

Also, don’t be afraid to go deep. If someone starts a line of discussion that’s really interesting, go with it. Don’t worry about the other panelists — stick with what’s exciting. Then, finally, if you run an audience Q&A at the end, set clear objectives. You have to be careful, because otherwise it’ll turn into 15 minutes of people plugging their podcasts. So, again, it’s that idea that you are in charge and you cut people off.

SS: How should moderators end a panel?

TB: The close is so important. Don’t just say, “Thank you so much for coming…” and fade off. Have a closing statement prepared, but be ready to throw it out if something better emerges during the discussion. That’s a really important part of being a great moderator; don’t have 20 questions in front of you that you go through one by one. Listen really closely to the conversation — and, in some cases, reiterate what they said. “That was really interesting. Let’s talk more about that…”

SS: It’s so clear to me when a moderator is not listening, because they’ll say, “Great, next question.” As an audience member, I’m thinking, “Well, if you don’t care, why should I care?”

TB: I would agree with you. Again, because the moderator drives everything. So, if you’re inexperienced, it can be mentally taxing. Many new moderators are too attached to their questions and their order, or they get nervous onstage. Remember, it’s not about you. You’re there to facilitate. The audience isn’t focused on you. They just want you to lead them on the journey.

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