Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach, the founder of Spokesmith, and a former diplomat.
Moderating a panel online is very different than hosting one in-person. Some ideas for holding an engaging panel that will keep your audience’s attention.
When associations hosted in-person panels, there were many ways to engage an audience. Moderators may have mingled with your panelists or participants before the start to ask about hot issues of the day and weave them into the conversation.
But can you translate that connection into your virtual event? Here are some ways to moderate an engaging panel that will hold your virtual audience’s attention.
Practice makes perfect. Or at least it improves the outcome. Gather your panelists and organizers online a few days before your event. Make sure they are familiar with your virtual platform. Confirm that panelists know how to share their content. Make sure everyone understands the speaking order, how to communicate when they want to intervene, and how you will conduct the program. Share how you will signal when they have used their time.
Then, the day of the event, ask your panelists to “arrive” up to 30 minutes early to make sure their connection is working, their sound is clear, and their materials are ready. Check fashion designer Tom Ford’s tips on lighting and camera angles.
Also decide how to allow participants into the event. Can anyone attend, or is the invite list limited? Do participants need to register? Will your team allow people in as they check names from a pre-approved list? Will everyone be muted upon entry?
In addition, determine how to handle incoming questions. Have a team member manage the chat box and identify questions for the moderator. Decide whether you will read the question from the chat box or have participants ask their questions. Unfortunately, bad apples may feel emboldened to be disrespectful in a virtual environment. Have a plan to mute or remove people if they can’t be civil.
Online audiences have so many things they can be doing. They can have one ear on your panel, while helping their kids with a project, checking social media, and ordering dinner all at the same time! To hold their attention, engage them early and often. Erin Fuller, president of MCI USA Association Solutions, wrote, “How can you incorporate constant calls to action—polls, open Q&A, sharing opportunities—so that people don’t drive over to email or check on a grocery delivery window?”
Introduce your topic with a news clip or story that demonstrates why it matters today. Ask questions the audience can respond to through the polling function. Set these up ahead of time so they will be ready to launch. Give the audience opportunities to comment through the chat box. Encourage them to use the chat function to reach out to other members of the audience as they would at your association’s coffee table.
Ask panelists to keep remarks and responses to two minutes. Brevity makes it considerably easier for an online audience to stay engaged. In June, I attended a virtual high school graduation that gave each of the speakers two to three minutes to share their best advice. The short format and quick transitions kept the audience on their toes!
The last step is to congratulate yourself on a job well done. These are difficult times. Associations can help by continuing their missions virtually. Participating gives members ways to stay connected. The keys to a successful virtual panel are preparation, short statements that stay on topic, and audience engagement.