hannah storm

Hannah Storm (right) speaking at Newsrewired, November 2023

Credit: Mousetrap Media / Mark Hakansson

I have spent more than a decade facilitating conversations, moderating panels, hosting events, and delivering keynote speeches at high profile conferences and meetings across journalism, media and elsewhere. 

I have been privileged to witness some extraordinary discussions, debates, and interactions. I have also listened to my fair share of real duds. I know I am not perfect, but I have received sufficient compliments to hope I am doing some things right that perhaps I can share. Here is my moderation mnemonic.


It is up to you to manage the timings, the expectations of the audience, and the discussion so each person speaking feels heard, and benefits from being able to interact with the other people on the panel. It is also up to you to manage the format of the panel to get the best from each speaker. 

Do you want to give them all a few minutes to set out their thoughts at the start of the panel, and if so is it appropriate for them to share slides/ other forms of media, or do you want to do a brief introduction of each and go straight to asking each of them a question, and then consider drip feeding audience questions, or will you leave the audience until the end, and if so how long will you need to leave, and do you have a contingency plan if the audience isn’t as engaged as you might like?


Before the panel, get organised. If your panel covers a particularly sensitive subject, or one that might be very personal to the speakers - with a background in journalism safety, mental health and gendered violence, mine often do - it is worth asking speakers if there are specific questions they would prefer not to answer. 

It is also valid to explore what might be out of bounds for people to discuss because of internal company policy. I always find it helpful to try to meet with panellists beforehand and consider introducing them to each other to ease comfort levels and answer any questions. And after the panel, make sure you thank them.


The constitution of a panel may not be up to you, but equally you may be able to influence its make-up and ensure it is as representative as possible. But what can you do if you do not feel it is representative enough, and you have had no role in deciding the speakers? Moderators are not passive participants - some men are refusing to take part in manels, for example. 


There are times when the expertise you bring to the role of moderator can really benefit the smooth running of the panel. However, it is a fine balance between over-egging your experience, background and perspective and sharing a light touch which helps facilitate conversation. People are often quite nervous taking part in panels but encouraging them to remember they are participating for a reason - their expertise - can help set their minds at rest. 


Your role is to listen and draw out the key and salient points from each speaker, helping them build on what the others are saying. It is often helpful to repeat what you have heard each person say for the benefit of them, the panellists, and the audience. Recapping these key points serves as an opportunity for them to confirm if they did mean that and for the audience to take stock of the key learning points. Also known as looping, recapping allows the moderator to spend time refining a specific critical point.


Often I feel like the audience is forgotten in panel discussions and yet without them, any panel is just a chat between people without wider impact. The audience can and does play a key role, and the best moderators are able to incorporate audience questions and comments to further amplify the content, while not diminishing from the chosen speakers.

Too often, I feel moderators do audiences a disservice by promising time for questions and not delivering, or not taking the time to be empathetic to perspectives other than their own. I am not sure there is an exact ratio (50:50, 60:40, 70:30), but I do know the audience should feel they are a part of this.  


Find out from the organisers in advance how long you have got. Liaise with the speakers to help them understand the timings and consider agreeing with them how you might need to politely move on. Consider a running order which allows flexibility if the conversation is fascinating and flowing.

Think about how much time you’ll give to the introductions, the panellists’ interaction, and the questions, and do your best to stick to this. I find it helpful to have a watch in front of me and to look out for timing cues given by the organisers. Consider that if you are at a conference and you overrun, you are disrespecting other people’s breaks, commitments and other talks. 


I recently attended a conference where the moderator read a pre-written script and then handed over to a panellist to do the same. The issue was one I really cared about, but there was such minimal interaction between the panellists and between the moderator that it felt like three people speaking in siloes.

Your role as a moderator is to facilitate interaction between the people speaking, to be open to hearing them, and asking for others to respond to what they have heard and to ensure that what we come away with is bigger than the sum of its parts.


With the best will in the world, we can have a plan, but we may need to bend with the wind. One of the most important skills a moderator has is to observe and listen to what the panellists say and how they respond and pick up on these cues to ensure the conversation fulfils its purpose and potential. Conversely, a moderator risks frustrating audiences if they ignore a very obvious follow-up question because they are too wed to their script, especially if the audience is not given time to ask their own questions.  

Narrative arc 

The best stories have a beginning, middle and end. The best panels do too. It is important to be flexible so one of the things I think about is how do I want to start, what are the key points I want to hit, how do I see the narrative arc of the conversation, knowing this panel cannot be all things to all people, and where do I want to end up.

Hannah Storm is the founder of Headlines Network, a media consultant, keynote speaker and moderator. She specialises in journalism safety, leadership and mental health.

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