Good panel moderators need to listen deeply. They need to pay very close attention to what their panelists are saying, to their arguments and questions, and the interesting possible inconsistencies amongst them. Moderators must poke a little, explore, try to move the panelists ever so gently out away from their traditional messages and in doing so potentially out of their comfort zones. Good moderators can generally anticipate the audience’s area of interest and questions in order to generate a vibrant debate and discussion.
But when you're facilitating, you can’t always listen.
I moderated/facilitated my panel from the floor, that is, I was standing in the audience while the panelists were speaking, far away from the podium with all its formality. I stood and walked through the participants with my wireless microphone on all the time so I could jump in without missing a beat. And without the awkward fumble of turning the mute on and off. In doing so I could keep a more interesting conversational rhythm to the panel discussion.
But I couldn’t too probe much, and I couldn’t always keep track of the narrative of my panelists – at least not at a very nuanced level – why? What else was happening at the same time that I should have been listening to my panel speakers?
- I was setting my iphone stopwatch to the 5 minute intervention cutoff after the speakers (because I had been warned by the organizers that they would go wildly overtime in their enthusiasm, effectively cutting off any discussion.)
- I was checking my timer to see how close I was to the end, because I amplified the alarm for all to hear (with my lapel microphone).
- The giant black crickets that I had seen crawling into the room in the morning (this was Nairobi) started to make loud insect phone calls to each other.
- One of the organizers came up to tell me that the closing speaker had changed.
- Another organizer came up to inform me how to pronounce the last name of the new closing speaker, which was Czech and not altogether obvious.
- I was trying to remember the exact title of the next panelist, because the cover ppt slide had not been replaced by the tech team after the previous speaker.
- The man in the blue shirt in the front row was frowning at me (or was it at someone else?)
- I discovered that there was one spot where I would get chilling police whistle-like feedback in my microphone so had to go stand somewhere else.
- The first organizer came up to tell me that the initial closing speaker was available again, so I didn’t have to remember the Czech name pronunciation.
- They started to drill for something akin to oil outside so I had to go and shut the door.
- I had to dodge a participant who came up from behind me to tell me kindly that I was doing a good job, but wanted to whisper it to me just where my lapel mike was attached.
Moderators sit at the head table, listen intently to the speakers and have a great conversation. Facilitators are highly sensitive to all the information coming in from their environment – more than the one voice after another on the panel. They are managing the space, they are managing the time, they are managing the organizers and they are managing the hopes and expectations of the 140 people in the room. As a result, ask me to moderate OR facilitate, both of which I will be happy to do, because facilitators can’t (always) listen.