How to moderate (facilitate) a panel of diverse cultures

12 May 2017 By Northern Lights

How to moderate (facilitate) a panel of diverse cultures image


Technology was meant to change the way we work – but it has not yet stopped the growth of conferences, with international speakers and audiences.

Working in Dubai, perhaps now the global hub of conferences, you can see first hand the challenge of creating a great event with very diverse cultures and managing issues from language to presentation styles.  For a moderator (or facilitator) it can be a nightmare.

A client rang me recently asking the best way to manage this variety. Here I share our conversation and tips.

First, let’s look at the challenges and then find ways around them. The most obvious is that English is the language nearly always used in global conferences (despite Jean-Claude Juncker declaring that English is in decline and delivering his speech in French).  But English may not be the first language, either for most of the audience or the speakers and panellists.  This means minimising jargon, using storytelling to bring points to life and ensuring delegates hear a rich mix of changing voices.

Scott Kirsner writes on Harvard Business Review with this brilliant description of moderating a panel like a pro: “The panel discussion was invented by someone who liked to sit three feet above his audience, talk with five of his closest friends for an hour, and barely acknowledge that there are 100 other people in the room, usually sitting in uncomfortable chairs.”

So the next challenge is how do you make a panel flow and integrate with the audience?  Here are the tips I discussed with my client.

  1. Interview panellists a week or two in advance

My client was planning to interview panellists in advance anyway, it is a basic courtesy.  But what we discussed was pulling out stories from each interview, to demonstrate key points, from this early discussion.  Storytelling is quite a skill (some tips in this blog on How to tell stories in presentations).

This is not easy – it is a journalistic skill, so here are some questions that can help to do this

  • When you say your company is a leader in setting up community projects for women in Africa, can you give me an example?
  • What was the most difficult part of setting this up?
  • What didn’t work and what did you learn from this?
  • Will you do more projects like this – and why (or why not)?

What you are trying to do with the questions is go beyond the ‘corporate speak’.  I am certain everyone reading this will have sat through at least one speech in their life when the speaker stood up and advertised their company and how great they are at doing xyz.  This is not only boring to listen to, it rarely adds value to the delegates – they have probably paid a great deal of money to attend, for their travel and accommodation and given up one or more days of time.  They did this to learn something new.

I have realised that the best questions are ‘when, why, how’ rather than ‘tell me about’.

Ideally, you want to pull out three or four stories for each panellist.  This gives you lots of ammunition to help them on the day and ensure the audience is engaged.

  1. Create a bank of stories for the panel session

You have interviewed the speakers and (hopefully) have a bank of say, ten stories that will bring your session to life.  You now need to think of your own stories to support the introduction, add value to the panel questions and for summing up.  Two or three stories per panellist would be good to have in hand plus four or five for yourself.

These stories will help to explain the panel session without jargon, get the audience interested and help to keep the flow going between panellists later on, if needed.

  1. Involve the audience early on

My client mentioned having seen a moderator turn to the audience very early on and ask them a few questions.  I love this idea for making the audience feel involved and part of the discussion – and it stops what Scott Kirsner refers to above, of ‘barely acknowledging the 100 other people in the room’.

It also means that if the panellists are not coming over well or struggling in any way, you can go back to one or two of the audience to say ‘You had a really good view on the issue of community projects, I wonder if you would like to expand on what you’ve seen as the learning points on this?’.

  1. Managing cultural differences

In this new global world, it can still be surprising to see such different global practices in terms of presentation styles.  I remember going to my first major international event in Abu Dhabi, where there were heads of state, American dignitaries and global names in peace-keeping. I was really surprised that a number of the speakers stood at the lectern and delivered their talks, straight, from five or six typed pages of notes.  And as I went to more events, I realised this is quite normal practice in the region.  A lot of my training with leaders has been to get them to step out from the lectern and walk and own the stage – but this requires considerable confidence and practice.

So as a moderator, you may well have people on your panel who bring notes to read from – hopefully your preparation discussions will give them confidence to tell stories, but you may want gently to interrupt and encourage them to tell the story they mentioned.

The other cultural challenge is one of deference to elders. A few years ago, I was at an event discussing women on boards.  One of the panellists was a highly respected Dubai businesswoman, in her 70s.  Passionate about the subject, she talked – and talked and talked. In the Middle East and many cultures, there is huge respect for elders. You do not interrupt or challenge. It became quite painful to watch one woman dominating this event and I wondered how I would have handled it if I had been the moderator.  I decided I would walk across the stage, position my body half-way facing between the woman and audience with my hand out towards the lady and jump in with a ‘Thank you so much, I love this point and want to see how the other panellists would respond to this.’  I would then turn my body from the lady and indicate to a panellist at the other end, let them start talking and then move away.

To be honest, there was no guarantee this would have worked and I suspect it could have been seen as slightly rude, no matter how much I smiled and thanked. But I believe there has to be respect to the audience as much as the speakers.

  1. Leading by example


I gave 9 tips to moderating an event in an earlier blog, where I covered preparation.  Part of this preparation is to plan your session, which might look like this

  • Write down the four or five great stories that will bring the discussion of the panel to life
  • Jot down the stories for each panellist
  • Think of ten questions that will help your panellists to tell their stories (you probably will only need four or five for a typical 45 minute panel, but this gives you back-up in case things dry up!)
  • Now shape the session. Use one or two of your own stories for your introduction and to outline what the session is going to cover.  Then put the best panellist story against each of your first five questions.  Now frame questions to bring out this great story for each panellist – so on the day you can go to that person to start the discussion, ‘Raj, I know your company had to rethink how ….’  This way you are guiding each panellist to come out with their story – it’s easy to forget what you were going to say when on stage!
  • Then shape your summing up with some key points from each of the panellists.

All this preparation will ensure you feel confident on the day and that you know how to manage timings and bring out the best from each panellist.

On the day, if the panellists are feeling ‘dry’, you might want to liven things up and use one of your stories between questions, on the lines of ‘It’s interesting that all of you are saying that … I know in our experience we have found….’ and then go into a relevant story. Or go to the audience, as discussed above.

  1. Manage introductions

The final point we discussed was introductions. My client was suggesting each panellist was allowed two to five minutes to introduce themselves – so with their introduction and four panellists it could be 20 minutes before anyone starts on the meat of the session.  Whatever time you give to someone to introduce themselves, nearly everyone will run over.  I suggest allowing two minutes maximum per person – but one minute is even better!

Often the moderator introduces each panellist – this has the advantage of managing time but means you don’t get to hear the panellists’ voices for some time.  I prefer a quick snappy introduction for each person so you get to ‘meet’ everyone at the start and then into the questions.

Those are my tips but would welcome any other tips and experiences of how you moderate panels – or what you think makes it boring for an audience!

Author Image

Written by Northern Lights