Last night I moderated the LeagueCast to post-mortem the first Presidential debate. If you’re ever asked to moderate or lead a discussion of panelists, I’ve a few thoughts to share. This is how I made my secret sauce, and how I’d make it better next time.

I was unfamiliar with the technical limitations of the computer and software I used for the videoconference. I participated in a videoconference for the League before using my wife’s more powerful desktop computer, and everything seemed to work well; this time, several people had problems with the audio. I wonder if this was related to an antiquated audio card in my laptop computer as the host for the conference.

Further, since this was the first time I’d hosted such a thing, I really didn’t know what I was doing, had trouble getting the “invites” out to the panelists so they could join, and I’m pretty sure I wound up broadcasting about five minutes of me breathing through my mouth during the middle of the debate on the front page of the site. (Sexy. I know. Restrain yourself.)

Once I got a handle on the technology, I was able to guide the panel to doing a good presentation. Before that, I was really thrashing about. So the lesson here is know your technology first. Whether you’re doing a live panel or something like this over video, understand what tools you’re using to facilitate communication. Even if it’s as simple a tool as a lavolier microphone, be aware of how long the cord is and don’t step in front of a loudspeaker while you’re wearing it. Next time, I’ll be more fluid and in control from the very beginning.

Moving on, a panel moderator needs to understand that there is a subordinate but not submissive posture to be taken. Here, I think I had things more or less right most of the time. If you’re the moderator, what’s going on isn’t about you. Don’t try to make it about you. Your jobs are to 1) make your panelists look good, 2) keep the panel discussion moving forward so the audience doesn’t lose interests, and 3) control the time so the presentation ends on schedule with all topics covered. And you only have literally a handful of seconds to do it in.

In retrospect, I might have done more on the first point, making my panelists look good. Should I do this again, I’ll have my panelists send me a short introduction for themselves with qualifications and backgrounds, so that I’m the one introducing them as experts. For last night’s panel, we’re all a bunch of aspiring political pundits, so a statement of some sort of background establishes credibility. The background need not be elaborate: “Yancey Pundit has been a blogger writing on cultural and political issues for five years,” or “Belinda Lawgal is an attorney who practices litigation and government relations law in Oshwegobanana Falls, Wisconsin.”  As long as there’s something that passes the giggle test for knowledge and insight, pretty much anything that looks like a credential will establish the panelist as an “expert,” so long as that credential is announced by the moderator in a tone of voice indicating that the moderator is suitably impressed.

From there, the moderator needs to suborn her ego to let the panelists do their thing. That means having some idea of what the panelists are going to say before they say it. I think that only some idea is necessary — and there’s two ways to get that knowledge. The first is to work out with the panelist beforehand what the subject matter will be. This seems like a better way to go if the panelist will be giving a presentation lasting several minutes, like in a seminar setting. So the moderator’s job is to say, something like “First up, there’s the tough challenge of navigating the ethical difficulties inherent in dual representations. Jennifer Bigbroker has some insights for us on that. Jennifer?” Then Jennifer Bigbroker gets her five minutes or so to explain why representing both the buyer and the seller in the same transaction is perfectly ethically acceptable.*

What we were doing last night were smaller nuggets. And I wanted to make sure we limited the total discussion to somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. The format of the debate we were anlayzing touched on six subjects, and there were some aspects of the debate itself that needed discussion. So with an anticipated seven panelists, and eight identifiable subjects, if everyone sounded off on everything, that would be fifty-six bits for discussion — not counting time for the panelists to react to one another. I foresaw that if left uncontrolled, this would go three to three and a half hours. And somewhere along the way, the group might lose sight of the next thing to talk about and leave the discussion incomplete.

So, it needs structure. That’s what the moderator brings to the table. Limit each speaker to a short amount of time for each subject. I was hoping everyone could get their pieces out in thirty seconds or less. I told them before we started I’d like to see them react to each subject thrown their way in forty-five to sixty seconds, and that I’d send them a cue to wrap things up if they were going long. I actually only had to do that once. But a downside to that is not everyone got to opine on everything.

That meant balancing another issue, again peculiar to the nature of the panel: ideological balance. I’d taken some time beforehand to estimate roughly where on the ideological spectrum each panelist fell. (We had a guest panelist, whose opinions I was unfamiliar with, but I was aided by a self-identification sent to me beforehand. And he fit right in to our respectfully cross-ideological ethos, so I lucked out there.) So I tried to get a sample on each topic from each point along the left-right spectrum, as best I could, picking panelists roughly at random.

Future moderators take note: I took time before the panel started to 1) envision what the panel would work out to be, 2) understand the subject matter of the discussion, 3) assess how much time would be needed to get there, and 4) sell my vision for the panel discussion to the panelists before we got started. This all falls under the general category of preparation. If you wing it, it’ll probably wind up messy. If you want it to run smoothly, invest a reasonable amount of time beforehand to give it structure.

Finally, there’s execution. This is the part that other people actually see and hear. Introductory remarks and then posing questions to get responses from the speakers, and then step back and let them do their thing. Once the substantive remarks begin, the focus goes on the speakers and away from the moderator. Now is their time to shine. Moderators who need to have their ego stroked must understand that they’re working on a team basis here — and when the whole team shines, the person who organizes the team shines along with them. The moderator’s job is to serve as a foil to bring forth all that good knowledge and analysis and insight from the experts assembled.

Those unusual moderators who are unconcerned about their egos must bear in mind that they are in the background but not absent. Particularly in a short-answer setup like the post-debate analysis last night, one of the the moderator’s principal jobs is timekeeper. Don’t let the panelists drone on, and take note of their personalities and the logic of their remarks as they’re making them, so that you can be ready to step in and use a few words to mold and guide the panelist back on track if they threaten to derail. The art is understanding that the conversation is going to have a flow of its own, and the panelists will interact productively with one another — you must allow this to happen! Letting go of that control is tough to do, especially if you’re concerned about time. But that’s very often where the gold is found. Find a balance between letting go and keeping the time moving.

One eye on the clock, at all times. There’s only so much time available and things have to move forward with substantial momentum. Help out and guide the panelists if they seem to bog down, and keep enough control and assertiveness to cut off the panelist if need be.

In last night’s case, the videoconference format provided a good tool for making that work — a text sidebar. After a time, I figured out how to exploit that sidebar most effectively and cue up who would be speaking next. I could speak as the moderator, and say, “Panelist X, subject A is always a tough issue. Did you think the President dealt with it effectively?” and then Panelist X would go. While Panelist X is speaking, I’d use the text sidebar to say, “When X is done, Y is up, and Z, you’ll go after Y.” Several times my panelists were able to cue up very well and smoothly pick up from one another without me saying a word out loud. I loved that as a moderator, because it made me more invisible and it kept everyone on track.

And I think I only had to text a speaking panelist once or twice to indicate “You’re using too much time, wrap it up.” I so preferred to do it that way than to interrupt, because it stayed natural and conersational in presentation, there was no interruption to disrupt that, and the panelist was able to reach a conclusion on his own terms. After a little bit of seeing and working with the time restraints, the panelists adapted themselves to them and only a light touch was needed to keep things moving forward. That takes listening to each panelist, and paying enough attention to know when they’re done and when to step in and move things forward with a cue to another panelist.

A live moderator won’t have the text sidebar tool available, so other kinds of nonverbal communication with the panelists would be needed there. But get that nonverbal communication established early, and get that time control established early. Rely on your panelists being smart and being able to think on their feet — that’s their job. As the moderator, you’re going to have your hands full just doing your own job.

End it on time. This is probably the biggest responsibility of the moderator under all circumstances — end it on time. Particularly in a live setting, chances are that the attendees have other places to go, maybe other seminars to attend at the conference or other meetings to get to, or they just plain have to get back to work. Whatever is going to happen next, acknowledge that in your closing remarks and give guidance to the audience about what they should be doing next: “Lunch is being set up right now in the Astoria Room, which is two doors down the main hallway to your left as you exit.”

Especially end it on time if the event following your panel discussion involves food. People like to eat and don’t like being kept away from their food. The last thing you should do is thank the panelists for their contributions, and thank the audience for their attention. It’s about them, not you.


* I’ve got several real estate brokerages as clients. The brokers genuinely, sincerely, and fundamentally cannot understand why I always shake my head when their dual-rep transactions go in the toilet and both the buyer and the seller are so mad at them they’re threatening to sue. “Didn’t the agent made her required disclosure right here by checking box 46 of the standardized six-page fine-print contract? Everyone initialled on it! That settles it, right?” But I digress.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Burt – I thought you did a fantastic job moderating and the technology (sidebar and the visual structure) were super-helpful IMO. My wife has been watching this morning and sending me little critiques and her only two real complaints were minor:

    – audio of people typing
    – quality of some people’s video feed

    I think we got the first under control around the halfway point when someone suggested people mute their audio when they weren’t talking (also easy to do with the technology).

    The second is harder because it requires a monetary investment. Just as an FYI, I was originally planning on using our Nexus 7 tablet but once I saw the video quality I went out and bout a webcam. I purchased a $30 Logitech camera with headset and mic from Walmart. It’s only 5mp but I was seriously impressed with the video and it was a snap to set up.

    I really hope we keep doing these. I had a BLAST.

  2. You did a fabulous job as moderator.

    The number one thing that would strike me as important is a starting point that everybody *IS* married to and middle points to use as starting points if the argument/discussions don’t go anywhere *OR* if the contributors fall into a “yes it is” “no it isn’t” pattern (these you don’t have to be married to if everybody is having the time of their life discussing)… but my daydreams about moderating one of these things involve topics such as “Arnold or Sylvester?”

    Which makes me think that, when it comes to the debates, you’ll probably want more structure… at least enough to the point to say “we’ve talked about X enough, let’s talk about Y”.

    The downside of the job, it seems to me, is that the job of the moderator is similar to that of referee insofar as your job is to make calls, not make points. The perfect moderator would be one who is able to say “Wally, what did you think?” when every fiber of his (or her) being is screaming “I DISAGREE WITH EVERYTHING YOU JUST SAID!!!!” and doubly so if you know that Wally is going to open with “I agree with everything you just said.”

    You did a great job.

    • Submerging your own opinions is a big challenge to the ego, and that’s a fact. But like I wrote in the OP, it’s not about me (when I’m the moderator). If I look good as a moderator, 90% or more of the credit for that belongs to the panelists.

  3. You did great, Burt, and these are helpful suggestions. I’ve a fancy to moderate a discussion myself one of these days; you can trust I’ll be reviewing this post in preparation!

  4. Burt, to echo wht everyone else said, you were a great moderator. In retrospect, I was a terrible one in the previous leaguecast because I couldnt let go of my own ego.

    • Don’t be so hard on yourself. The subject matter of the last one was something you were much better educated about than the rest of us , so a more active role from you was appropriate. If you were to want constructive criticism, feel free to shoot me an email. Feel free to offer any criticism of me you might have. I enjoy the praise but I hunger for ways to improve.

  5. 20 years ago I was out at the leading edge of research (for one of the big telephone companies) on real-time audio over the Internet. Interesting to see that the same old problems continue to plague the technology.

    There are only two good solutions to the echo problem. One is to insist that everyone use headphones or ear buds or something similar, which breaks the open-air echo path. Or everyone who wants to use open-air speakers need to be equipped with an expensive echo canceller. The other alternatives, such as automatic switching of half-duplex speech mode, all have problems (such as clipping) that are almost as obnoxious as the echo. Manually switching microphones on and off is inconvenient.

    The microphones built into laptops generally suck; anyone planning to participate in this type of forum regularly should invest in a separate microphone. I’m a fan of headphone microphones as well; not only do they assure constant distance from speaker to microphone but they’re also much less sensitive to small background noise like keyboards. Even an inexpensive headset/microphone rig from Office Depot or Radio Shack will substantially improve the quality of the audio you transmit. As I’m listening to the session again, Mike Dwyer had the most consistently good audio; I wasn’t surprised, since he was using a headset with microphone.

    Automatic gain control is always your enemy and should be disabled. Multiple participants suffered from AGC distortions of their audio. Unconstrained AGC will crank the gain up to the point that every little background noise (including breathing) gets transmitted.

    I played around with video for the telco as well (really bad video). The results of that work suggested that a camera shot showing the speaker from about belly button up worked best. It allowed them natural gestures and let body language come through. Note that headset with microphone makes that much more feasible.

    • Watching the video convinced me to go ahead and get a headset. That is, if I’m going to do this in the future. I’m not sure how Jumping Bean will impact that.

      • The webcam I bought came with the headset but I would have purchased one if it hadn’t. This is from years of experience at my day job. Because my coworkers are spread all over the country we are on the phone a LOT and the headphones w/mic make that bearable. They eliminate the echo effect completely. Also, if there is any ambient noise they will usually cancel most of that out.

    • Just because I so seldom get to talk about the subject, I’ll throw in some of the rules-of-thumb that came out of the work for improving the quality of the video in a desktop conferencing setup. Hopefully the server here will accept HTML for bullet lists (why is there no preview option?).

      – Avoid patterned clothing. It takes a lot of bits to encode, for example, a plaid shirt, and in a bitrate constrained situation, something else will suffer.

      – For the same reason, avoid a busy background that is being covered and uncovered when you move.

      – Just as AGC for audio is your enemy, so are automatic brightness adjustments for the video. When the software makes an adjustment, it changes the whole frame, which typically requires a lot of bits to be sent. To compensate, the image is either blurred badly or frames are dropped.

      – If your face fills the entire frame, bad things tend to happen because small motions result in most of the frame changing. The only one who was badly guilty of this particular problem was Mr. Likko, whose image “froze” almost every time he leaned forward and looked down at the keyboard.

      – If the software supports it, consider black-and-white rather than color. In most compression algorithms, the color information takes up between a third and a half of the bits. Tossing the color almost always results in a higher average frame rate. For several of the participants, their lighting was such that color wasn’t adding much any way.

      Anecdotally, one of our “experiments” 20 years ago gave the receiver of the video the ability to control some of the parameters of the video that was being transmitted (color depth, frame size, and the threshold for determining if a portion of the image had changed from the previous frame). In general, people participating in a conversation would sacrifice everything until they got the frame rate up to about 13-15 frames per second (at that point you can tell if the video and audio are in sync, ie, audio matches lip movements). Given additional bits from that point, they would increase the frame size (up to a point), then make the coder more sensitive to changes (again, up to a point), then add color.

        • Just about every time they’ve tried to upgrade the comments, it’s caused some problems. I went ahead and dashed the bullets and added some spacing.

          This is as good a segue as any, but I was wondering if you might be interested in doing a LeagueCast with me (and others who want to join in) sharing your ideas on the west and the partitioning of our country.

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