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Putting on a play: how to moderate a public meeting





  1. Different events have different moderator job descriptions – depending on size, purpose, speakers etc . . .  Make sure to talk to the organisers about their expectations.
  2. Every meeting is different. There is no one way to moderate well – but there are also lots of ways to moderate badly.
  3. If an event is a play, you are the Director and the stage manager, but also one of the main actors - the narrator on the stage, responsible for the prologue, the links and the epilogue. Own the meeting.
  4.  Remember that you are there to manage the time, but also to make the meeting fun for the audience. And exciting. And stimulating. The audience are the theatre critics. What will they write in the morning papers?
  5. However good the script, you will need to change it as you go along. Be ready to improvise.
  6. Preparation: setting the stage
  • Think about how you want to organise the meeting, and make sure the speakers know in advance what you expect. For example, if you want them not to make ‘speeches’, but rather a few introductory remarks to set up a conversation, tell them in advance. Otherwise, they will come with a long text and want to read it.
  • Talk to the organisers about the platform lay-out. If there are arm-chairs, make sure there is one for you, and that there is a podium you (but preferably not panellists) can speak from. You will want to sit by the podium. If a table, make sure you sit at the end, by the podium.
  • Placement of speakers is easiest for you in the order they are in the programme. If not, make sure to write down the order on a separate sheet of paper.
  • Check on microphones. Preferably, you want a hands-free microphone, so you can move around and have your hands free to hold papers. Speakers will want their own microphones.
  • Check that there are good facilities for audience participation – preferably roving microphones in different parts of the room.
  • If there are stage lights, make sure they can be dimmed, so you can see the audience when you need to.
  • Find out whether the meeting is on or off the record, and whether there is a Twitter feed you should announce.

7. Act 1: Introduction

  • Stand up. Make eye contact with the audience.
  • Bring people into the room, giving enough background so that the audience can engage;
  • Set the ‘exam question’, preferably concrete and analytical. Hold people to that as the session develops.
  • Perhaps consult the audience on their initial view of the exam question.
  • Say how you are going to manage the session.
  • Tell people you are going to encourage audience participation, but that you would like brief comments or anecdotes to add to the conversation, rather than questions – and people will have to be brief. 90 secs maximum. No speeches.
  • Remind people if they are on the record. Mention the Twitter feed.
  • Introduce the panel, but briefly. Names and job titles are usually enough. Longer cvs should be available in conference packs.

8. Act 2: Getting discussion started

  • Preferably, you are still standing, at a podium. Panel members are seated.
  • Ask panel members to speak, briefly (as you will have told them in advance).
  • Perhaps ask them a question after they have spoken, to develop what they have said, or to bring them back to the exam question.
  • Think about involving the audience half way through, to break up the presentations – either a couple of comments (remember the 90 second rule) or a quick vote.
  • At the end of the presentations, summarise any emerging themes of questions (your narrator role).

9. Act 3: Debate

  • Open the topic for discussion, especially via contributions from the audience.
  • Try to be thematic in the discussion, asking the audience to contribute on specific themes rather than taking speakers in e.g. the order in which they put up their hands.
  • Challenge speakers if they are not clear or you think their contributions need to be developed. Ask for answers or proposals, not just questions.
  • Make sure to have a balance of contributions, according to the corner of the room, gender, age, etc . . .
  • Be selective in going back to the panel , choosing your topics, directing questions etc . . . Interpret the mood of the audience to the panel yourself, rather than encouraging them to answer individual questions.
  • Keep the audience awake, alert and engaged. Feel the mood. Change the pace by using votes or quick moments to talk to neighbours.
  • Try and keep a sense of forward momentum towards answering the exam question.

10. Act 4: Coming to a conclusion

  • Keep an eye on the clock! Allow 10-15 minutes (depending on panel size) for Acts 4 and 5.
  • Summarise where you think the meeting has got to.
  • Allow each panel member time to make a closing statement, usually not more than 2-3 minutes. Tell them what question you would like them to answer.

11. Act 5: Conclusion

  • Give your own brief, final summary of the answer to the exam question.
  • Say anything that needs to be said about follow-up, sources of further information etc . . .
  • Thank the audience.
  • Thank the panel.
  • Make sure you finish on time.

12. Some final thoughts:


  • Let the sessions become a parade not a conversation.
  • Be afraid to interrupt or challenge, even VIPs.
  • Lose the analytical questions in a morass of information.
  • Let speeches by the panel take up more than half the time.
  • Let your own enthusiasm overshadow the speakers.


  • Manage the meeting so as to avoid banalities.
  • Leave everyone feeling they have made a contribution.
  • End the meeting on a positive note.


  • You will be surprisingly tired afterwards, when the adrenalin begins to dissipate. Allow time to decompress.


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