Moderating All Things – Tedd Roberts

Moderating All Things – Tedd Roberts


No, this is not behavioral or diet advice – I did NOT say “moderation in all things.” Sure, I have opinions in those topics, but that’s not what this column is about… or rather, it IS.

I’ve been to four SF and science related conventions/meetings this past year, and in several of them I have been the panel moderator.  In fact, in the scientific workshop, I led about eight hours of “working track” time which needed to be productive, and I had a vested interest in certain outcome goals (hint: I got someone to be actual MODERATOR for that track).  In a recent SF convention I was moderator of every regular panel to which I was assigned. I have been told I do a decent job, and I do try.  Not the best, not the worst, but I do have a few guidelines for moderating that seem to help.

Why talk about panel moderators here?  Well, mainly because moderating SF authors is not always easy.  There are many reasons for that, and part of it is simply that writers have SOMETHING TO SAY.  After all, that’s why they write, and that’s why the audience comes to listen.  I have to admit that a lot of the guidelines I use have come from other moderators – most notably from a discussion I had with Webcartoonist Howard Tayler at DragonCon in 2011 and continued during Deep South Con 50 in 2012.

The story starts with me having to wait for Howard to finish a panel on Webcartooning at DragonCon and transport him to dinner.  I was just the go-fer and really didn’t know him.  Fortunately a mutual friend waited with me and accompanied us to our destination.  I listened to the panel for a while and was amazed at how smoothly a LARGE panel (more than 8 people if I recall correctly) ran.  I asked Howard about it, and it turned out that he was NOT the moderator, but offered to do so when he found out that the person designated to moderate was inexperienced and rather daunted by the range of talent on the panel.  The story continued 10 months later when I was in the position of moderating Howard and two other rather strong personalities for a panel at DSC50.  By the way, that panel was one of the most favorite I have ever done, and the video is available at

Howard’s advice, and that of the many other role models I’ve copied (yes, professionals learn to steal from the best!) was to realize that a moderator’s job is to make sure that the panel keeps moving – never dominated by just one person – that everyone on the panel should speak (but the Moderator should speak less) – that you should attempt to stay on topic, but recognize when the topic drift might be more fun for panelists and audience.  Specific tips that I’ve been given are to be prepared with leading questions, topics that can be discussed, ways to encourage panelists to expand on something they just said, and how to interrupt someone who is going on for WAY too long.

More importantly, a good moderator needs to know their fellow panelists, know their topic, and know their audience.  MOST important was knowing just what format the convention programming folks intended for a panel: Is it supposed to be a panel of experts discussing?  Audience participation?  Interview? Game show?

I have to confess that I don’t do interviews well.  They require a level of preparation that I often don’t have time to do.  On the other hand, game show formats require even MORE participation, and I am starting to do those, too.

The biggest problem with the first two panel types boils down to who should speak, when and for how long.  Expert talks SHOULD consist of a panel with something to say, and an audience composed of people who want to hear what they have to say.  Audience participation, on the other hand, is much more of a collaboration between panel and audience – they can range from designing an alien world or creature to an opportunity for audience members to ask questions of the panelists.  Hence the following pro-tips from one moderator to another (or to panelists and audiences in general).

1) Know your panel type – expert, audience participation, workshop, roundtable, etc.  For an expert talk, you will have panelists that can and should discuss a topic in depth.  There will be audience questions, but they can wait until you’ve covered the main topic.  Audience participation assumes that the audience will be invited in no longer than 5 to 10 minutes into the panel.  Workshops are primarily teaching opportunities – expect questions throughout and plan accordingly.  Roundtables usually allocate time for each panelist to speak once, maybe twice.  There will likely be no time for questions, and the panelists will likely use ALL of their time (and then some) telling their stories.

2) Know your role:  If you are the sole non-writer on a panel about indie publishing, then chances are you are there to be a MODERATOR, and not a participant.  I realize that I suffer from a touch of Imposter Syndrome (i.e. the nagging feeling that you really don’t belong) but when I’m on a panel of Big Name Writers, like Sarah A. Hoyt, John Ringo, Larry Correia, I know that the audience PROBABLY didn’t turn out to listen to ME.  On the other hand, if the topic is about incorporating brain diseases in fiction, I’m right where I belong!

So first thing is to understand why the programming director chose you as Moderator – ASK THEM.  If/when you are good at Moderating, you will likely get asked to moderate a panel where the Guest Director thinks that a third party needs to moderate the potential circus.  Or, you may get asked because you know the panelists even though you don’t know the topic – hence how I came to moderate The NASA Panel some years back (yes, they couldn’t come up with a better name, because it was intended to cover wide-ranging topics).  This was before I started working with the NASA Human Research Program, so I knew I didn’t have anything to say on the topic, yet I knew quite well two of the three Space Scientist/Engineers-turned-SF Writers.  So, you MODERATE.  Have questions prepared, learn something about the background of each person.  Know the stated goals of the panel description (again, TALK to the Programming Director), but have a couple of extensions where you can lead the discussion if it starts to lag.

On the other hand, you might BE one of the experts.  The proper application of Science to Science Fiction is one of my favorite panel topics.  I might be on a panel of Big Name Writers (at least in my opinion) and yet, this would definitely be a case where the audience may very well want to hear my opinion. That doesn’t let you off the hook, though.  You still have to do all of the things a good moderator should – it just means that you CAN inject personal comments into the panel.

3) Control the flow.  Give a brief intro to each panelist, then let them continue with their own self-intro.  Have a prepared first question and follow-ups.  Have a preferred order in which you want each panelist to answer – go from one end of the table to the next, or use a rotation system.  Have follow-up questions, and if you hear something that would be a great follow-up, WRITE IT DOWN.  You can then use it later – at an appropriate time, of course.

IF you are one of the experts, save your comments until last.  One of the WORST moderating jobs I have ever experienced was a panel of 5 experts, each of us was to talk briefly (our favorite scientific breakthrough of the year, I think) – we were time limited and the Moderator had to ensure that we stayed within time.  Unfortunately, the Moderator made follow-up comments after EACH panelist… and did it with EVERY cycle through the panel and with every follow-up question.  They used up all of the time saved by making the panelists cut their comments short.  This same moderator would chastise panelists when they did run long, not realizing that they were doing the exact same thing.

So, when you are a moderator, resist the urge to interrupt or rebut a panelist with your own expertise.  Think of your opinion as being an additional, phantom panelist who gets to take a turn at talking.  Self-censor yourself to stay on topic and within time.

DO NOT be afraid to cut off a panelist who is talking too long.  You seen them, the senior author who is afraid the young whippersnappers have passed them by, or the author so enamored of their own wit.  Even very interesting, entertaining, amusing authors can get wrapped up in the story they are telling. As a moderator, you MUST control the flow – that means making sure Johnny Writer doesn’t use up all of your time telling that amusing anecdote about how he met Harlan Ellison in an elevator at Worldcon something-or-other.

When interrupting, do NOT say “Okay, that’s enough, let someone else take a turn.” Or “That’s nice but we need to move on.”  No, no, a thousand times no.  Been There, Done That… see worst moderating, above.  Be polite, be kind, and do the interrupting in the name of the flow of the panel.  My favorite interruption is “Oh, Johnny, that’s great, you just set us all up with my next question for the panel.”  You can actually let the panelist continue by simply redirecting them – “Johnny, excuse me, but that’s a really good point – can you tell us how that applies to…”  That way you are polite, and you DO let the panelist continue, but you’ve taken back control of the flow. Be very careful and judicious with your moderating.  If you are the newcomer, outsider, and the audience came to hear your Big Name Authors tell all about how they got the idea to write together in a shared universe, by all means let them talk.  Use the latter form of interruption to stay on topic, but let them go on.

Of course, the other problem you might have is dead space.  Always have more questions prepared that you know you will have time for – especially when interviewing.  Have questions in associated areas that might not fit the exact description of the panel.  The worst possible outcome is to have a whole series of questions planned only to find out that the panelist(s) don’t want to talk about it.  For example, you have a question on Climate on a Fantasy world only to have panelists start to argue about Climate Change.  You planned several follow-ups on magical weather manipulation, elementals, and real world comparisons, but now your panelists are staring sullenly at each other.  Perhaps this would be a good time to have the panelists explain why fantasy must have rules, when they can be broken, or construction techniques for the particular type of weather they experience.

As a moderator, you never want to run out of topics.  Have more questions than you know you will ecver need.  I can usually wing it, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with panelists who can keep going long after the panel time period is up.  But the first time I ever conducted an interview, I ran out of questions and froze up.  Fortunately, I was not the only interviewer, and a VERY capable fellow panelist filled in the gap.  Have I mentioned that I STILL don’t do interviews well?

All of that said, be prepared to ditch your plan and run with the topic drift when it occurs.  The First Contact panel video above was supposed to be a discussion of how the three authors handled First Contact in their stories.  It was not going well, and so the topic drifted into designing a First Contact scenario.  The result was WAY more fun, and I have used similar panels to develop new, fun ideas (including an Improv game based on First Contact).

John Ringo and Kelly Lockhart are a prime example of runaway topic.  John will fill all available space in a panel discussion.  If there is a weak or no moderator and the other panelists don’t speak up, John will.  He is also aware that he can leave others in his dust, so he does exercise caution and TRIES not to take over a panel when he shouldn’t.  On the other hand, one of the BEST people to moderate John is Kelly Lockhart.  They have a similar style despite the differences in backgrounds, experience and career.  They also have shared experiences which they use to good effect in panel discussion. The John and Kelly Show usually starts with Kelly having prepared questions, but can veer drastically into new and often uproariously funny territory.

As a moderator, flexibility is good.  Be prepared, no matter what happens.  The way to know when to let the diversion happen is to look at the faces of audience panelists and guests.  If a panelist gets stone-faced, they probably feel they’ve been shorted at their chance to talk.  If the audience looks bored, you need to take back control of the discussion and move on to something else.  If the panelists are laughing, the audience is laughing, and there are tears of laughter in your own eyes, let the diversion run.  It might just end up being your Favorite! Panel! Evah!

4) The question of Questions:  Q&A is YOUR job as Moderator.  YOU open the floor to questions, YOU choose the questioner, YOU choose the panelist(s) to answer if the questioner does not.  This keeps the flow of the panel under control and allows you to continue to apply all of the techniques above.  Repeat the questions for the panelists – there’s probably panelists AND audience who couldn’t hear the original (it also gives you a chance to trim the question for time).   This is your job, and frankly, it’s one of the most important aspects of being a moderator.

I am at heart, a Teacher.  To me, audience questions are a normal part of any presentation, and I generally don’t mind them at any point in my presentations.  That is not true of everyone and particularly not true during panels.  Most conventions schedule panels every 60 minutes, meaning you have 50 minutes for a panel and NEED TO END ON TIME to ensure that your panel exits and allows others to enter and start on time.  After all, you, too, want to be able to start at your scheduled time.  If your panel is experts talking about a pre-planned subject, keep questions until the end.  Figure on 40 minutes of panel discussion, 9 minutes of questions and 1 minute to wrap up.  Better yet, cut the discussion just a bit shorter and allow each panelist 1 minute at the end to sum up, pitch their next book and mention other activities at the Con.  Figure on a minimum of 7 or 8 minutes for questions.  This SHOULD let 4-5 people ask questions; if there are more, suggest that they be taken out into the hall and DO clear out of the table or dais to let the next group in.

We all seen it, and might even have done it – an audience member raises their hand to ask a question, but gives an opinion, rambles or starts their own anecdote instead.  For an Expert Talk, your job as a Moderator is to prevent this.  At the start of a Q&A session, I usually recite the following – shamelessly borrowed from Howard Tayler:

“Please stick to QUESTIONS ONLY.  Remember, a QUESTION is an interrogative sentence that begins with words like ‘WHAT,’ ‘HOW,’ ‘WHO’ or ‘WHY.’  It does NOT begin with ‘I THINK,’ ‘IN MY OPINION’ or ‘I ONCE…’ Please direct your questions – and questions only – to the panelists.”

Yes, that’s a bit harsh, but it works, and your panelists AND audience will be much more appreciative.  After all, the audience came to hear the panelist/experts, not another audience member. There are certainly exceptions – there may be a fellow author in the audience, or a subject matter expert that advises your panelists.  Let the PANELISTS decide whether to invite someone else into the discussion.

On the other hand, don’t be TOO quick to cut off a rambler, the intro “In my field we…” might be a preface to “How would you use that in your story?”  When you do get someone who rambles in their question, be polite in your interruption.  Don’t just cut them off, redirect what they’ve already said into a question for the panel.  Thus, “…and you’re asking the panelists… what the effect of Independent Publishing has had on copyright?” is MUCH better than “…and your question is?” or “Please get to the point.”  Remember, when you are polite, panelists and audience alike will notice.  You will be able to do a better job of moderating, and likely get more opportunity to do it.

Work all of the audience.  Don’t just take questions from everyone in an area, then move on.  Pick people from different areas.  When there are multiple hands up, pick several in advance: “You in the corner, then left side red shirt, then front row.”  It lets people know you’ve seen them, and how long they will have to wait to get their question answered.  When reaching the end, be sure to signal that as well: “We have time for two more questions – back row, then blue shirt on the center aisle.”  Yes, others will be disappointed, but they won’t be clamoring for attention while you are trying to close the panel.

5) Audience participation:  Really, all of the above tips apply, you just allow more time for Q&A and a looser interpretation of the definition of a question.  Often you WANT the audience to make suggestions, so you don’t need to limit them to questions only.  You DO want to advise them to be brief and to the point.

This is where you definitely want to have a system for working the audience.  You are in charge, this is not a free-for-all.  If you get shouted comments from the floor, remind people to take turns, but couch it in terms of making sure that everyone can hear.  That way you are not insulting the audience, you are building them up by suggesting that everyone should be able to hear their contribution.

This is one time you can work through the audience in a “physical” sequence (i.e. left to right, front to back, etc.).  Plan to give yourself time for dozens of contributions.  Try to keep from calling on the same person too many times – of course it will happen if there is not enough participation, but there are things you can do to fill those gaps which we will talk about later.

Call on people by position and another identifier: “Third row, blue shirt” or “Standing in the back, Darth Vader Mask.”  Again, have a sequence and mention 2-3 in a row so that people know they have been noticed and when it will be their turn.  If you have to break for any reason (a question topic has come up too early and needs to be discussed early, or you need to get back to the next stage of discussion, tell the audience members waiting that you recognize them, and they will be after the next segment.  Include kids, you might be surprised at their questions and comments (but be prepared to redirect as well).

Make eye contact, repeat the question or comment so that everyone can hear, rephrase for politeness and time.  If the questioner is insulting or inconsiderate, you can simply say “We’re not discussing that at this time.”  Again, be prepared to run with any digression or topic drift IF EVERYONE IS ENJOYING IT.  Another favorite panel (not as moderator) was “Messiest Ways to Kill Zombies” in which we digressed from the main topic and started discussing casting, director, producer and soundtrack recommendations for a movie based on the messiest ideas from our discussion.

6) Give Feedback.  I enjoy being a moderator, and I REALLY enjoy being on a panel with a moderator who knows their stuff and runs the panel efficiently.  Follow up with panelists later, ask what they did and didn’t like.  If something went off the rails – apologize.  It might not have been what the panelist was expecting, and you want them to have a good memory (and recommend you for more moderating jobs).  This way, it’s about the PANEL and not about you.

Be sure to tell the program director when you’ve really enjoyed yourself.  If you want to do it again, say so.  Give them honest feedback about what worked and what didn’t.  If you noticed a particular personality clash, mention it and tell the Director what you did to resolve it, that way if there is a complaint, they’ve heard at least one other perspective.

Most of all, have fun.


Filed under Uncategorized

8 responses to “Moderating All Things – Tedd Roberts

  1. Righteous how to post, Ted – thanks!

  2. Awesome! Thank you for the time and trouble of posting; that’s an excellent primer!

  3. Huh. I always figured the moderators had tasers to keep the panelists under control.

  4. sabrinachase

    The very first panel I was a panelist on–they made me the moderator 😀 When the stunned survivors stagger from the wreckage and wonder “where did we go wrong?”–that would be a good place to start the investigation. I discovered I *liked* it. I volunteer for it. Bwahahahahah!

    And yes, I make sure the quiet panelists get enough time to speak, and get everyone lively but not riled up. Herding panelists is not trivial.

  5. kristinarnold

    Such a wonderful overview of what to do (and not to do) as a panel moderator! Love your “polite” interventions to get people refocused. I’m curious about the ways you “have used similar panels to develop new, fun ideas (including an Improv game based on First Contact).” I’m always looking for ways to add more pizazz to panels!

  6. Taking notes for the convention I volunteer at.

  7. Ben Yalow

    There’s a short guide for moderators that’s been used at a number of conventions for a few decades, since it was first written by Janice Gelb (who will be running Program Ops this year at the Worldcon). It’s nowhere near as comprehensive as this one — which is really good — but is shorter so it can be given to moderators in the hopes of getting them to read it.

    Janice’s guide is at

    But this guide is really good; it helps by giving not only a short rule, but commentary explaining the rule, and the reasons why.