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Why moderators make the difference

Leading from the front: why the moderator makes the conference


As featured in The National Business Review, August 2018
Nathan Smith

Conference moderators have a tough job.

They must strike a balance between asking engaging and penetrating questions to satisfy the experts in the room and keeping the flow of the session going. But there’s nothing worse than thinking “I wish the moderator would ask a followup question to that,” but no question comes.

Sometimes that’s because of time constraints. But often it’s due to a poor briefing by the organiser. Professional moderators should be able to improvise but no one is an expert on everything. And, once the event gets under way, a moderator becomes the most important person in the event. To help them succeed, they must be included in the pre-event planning phase.

However, a recent study by – software for facilitating crowd participation (more about this later) – found only 19% of event professional involve their moderators at this stage.

“We were taken aback by the stats considering how critical the moderator’s role is,” according to a company blog post.

“Organising an event without briefing a moderator is like sending a tour bus on a journey without informing the driver where you want the passengers to arrive. With no destination, the bus will likely go astray and people will get horribly irritated.”

Some of the most important things to discuss with a moderator include the aims and objectives; what success looks like; how participants should feel by the end of the session; and why they were chosen as a moderator.

Scheduling is also important to discuss – is the conference loose or tight; does it have any hard stops for breaks, meals, etc? And more importantly, why is it designed as it is? Is there any room to change formats from a presentation to an interview or make the sessions more interactive?

Jan Tonkin, director of Auckland-based The Conference Company, says a moderator’s primary job is to be an “advocate for the audience.”

“The sessions should create a proper conversation. The risk of facilitating a panel, for instance, is that a moderator will ask pre-scripted questions that aren’t engaging. That’s why I like the idea of being an advocate for the audience.

“But it takes a lot of briefing the moderator to bring them up to that level and also a commitment by the moderator to deliver those skills. Of course, if it’s a large conference with many sessions, there will be a lot of moderators which increases the briefing workload. But it’s worth it,” she says.

Taking extra time to brief moderators to explain expectations also gives them a chance to outline their own expectations for the conference.

“So, it’s a two-way street. In my experience, the more planning that goes into this part of the conference, the better the overall quality,” Ms Tonkin explains.

Digital questions
Alternatively, the temptation to briefly brief a moderator and switch instead to some geewhiz technology is growing stronger each year.

For instance, the app is so widely used at conferences that many people have it permanently downloaded on their smartphone. The software lets participants type out their own questions and decide which questions from the other delegates they’d most like to discuss. It’s a good way for the moderator to plug into the energy of the crowd and be an “advocate.”

Software like this removes the dreaded fear of asking verbal questions which is great for younger delegates but Orbit World Travel manager of groups and events Brendan Drury says delegates from all ages love using apps like these.

“The concept of engagement has changed over time and now there is a ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect that has certainly become more noticeable over the years. The millennials are more vocal and actively look for content to create and enhance their own thinking.

They expect more participation and dialogue around ideas and insights.

“I also think interaction has become more prevalent in the conference model, which shows millennials are looking for more dialogue rather than the traditional one-way delivery followed by a Q+A,” he says.

However, Ms Tonkin says the utility of apps is completely predicated on outstanding moderators.

“The audience should be absorbing the content rather than just listening to it and, when a good discussion is flowing with audience participation, then there is much more chance for those conversations to be thought about rather than just being served. Technology enables that and the fact that it’s very cost-effective is making a big difference.”

Key ingredient
Technology can certainly help make a conference or event run faster and smoother, says Mr Drury.

It also helps manage and collect information about the conference which can be used for all sorts of insights and ROI metrics to help the moderator understand where he or she may need to improve.

“Overall, the key ingredients for success continue to be relevant content coupled with engaging delivery. Technology can only continue to enhance this critical aspect of organising an event.

“I think the younger generations are looking for genuine connections with others, insights that they can use to stay ahead of the curve in whatever endeavour they are pursuing and a meaningful dialogue which they can actively participate in on a choice of platforms. Technology has an obvious role to play here,” he says.

Ms Tonkin says an excellent moderator using excellent technology can help calm a delegate’s worrier about what they would have done with that day had it not been spent at the conference. Would they have received that same stimulation somewhere else? A good moderator has a big role to play in positively answering that question.

“Ultimately, if you go to a conference with an open and curious mind, rather than thinking you’re just warming the seat, the experience will be much better. So, a lot comes down to the preparedness of the participant as well,” Ms Tonkin says.

“When I’m talking to a client, I’m always asking them how they can provide something better than any other event.

How can it be the best go-to place for the people in that profession? That’s the heart of how a conference must be designed today. Everything must focus on providing value for participants.

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