Increasing the Value of Conference Moderator’s

by danperry on February 16, 2008

in Conferences

A month ago, I wrote an article titled “How to Keep An SEO Conference from Clipping the Iceberg”. The post was specific to the Pubcon event in December, 2007. I posted it on Gooruze, and Brett Tabke was kind enough to respond with some great insight, and with something I was hoping for. He ended the reply by asking “Any suggestions for getting quality moderators?” Well… Since you asked, here goes.

It is tough finding good moderators. Kevin Ryan told me the same thing about SES, so don’t feel like it’s only Pubcon. Speakers are a dime a dozen, good speakers are a lot more, but it seems like good moderators are even harder to come by (my thoughts, not Kevin’s).

I think that my “rant” was also caused by a previous situation that I didn’t mention in the original post. I spoke at ad:tech Chicago over the summer (6 months prior to Pubcon), and was lucky enough to experience the best moderator I’ve ever met (Teresa Caro, this is all because of you!) For reference, I’ve spoken over a dozen times, which is nothing compared to a lot of industry folks, but enough where I know a good moderator when I see one. Here’s what differentiated her.

  • She emailed the speakers (three including me) about 6 weeks prior to the conference; it may have been 2 months. She asked what specifically each of us would be speaking on, and to “Reply to All”, so everyone could see it. We all picked a time to meet on a conference call about 3-4 weeks in advance, so everyone had room on their calendar.
  • Before the conference call, she called me (I’m guessing she called the other speakers as well) to personally discuss my topic, and mold it into something the audience would not only learn from, but enjoy.
  • During our conference call, we all discussed what we were going to talk about, and ensured that nobody would be covering the same material, to avoid overlap. She also asked each of us to share one thing about us that few people knew, as a point of introduction. She asked for specific takeaways that we planned on presenting to the audience. Finally, she asked us to provide one question we’d like her to ask us, to “prime the pump” if you will.
  • After the call, she sent out the notes she took, to ensure we were all on the same page, and to provide a reference point. This was key for me; it kept me focused, rather than wandering off the path, which I’m prone to do, and I think other speaker are as well.
  • As the decks rolled in, she reviewed them, and passed them on to the other speakers, to ensure we all understood what each other was covering.
  • Just before ad:tech, she sent an email to all of us, asking us to meet prior to the session, so at least we all knew what everyone looked like. She also stated where she’d be, and what she’d be wearing. Talk about attention to details; very nice.
  • Just before the conference, she emailed us to let us know that the presentations would be on her computer, but to feel free to bring in a copy on a USB. Also, she sent all of us the softball questions she’d be asking, just as a reminder to be prepared for them.
  • When we finally met, we already knew a little about each other, so it wasn’t nearly as awkward as usual.

Now, I realize this is at the opposite end of the spectrum than my blog post, and I realize the level of effort needed from a moderator, but I’m telling you, I’ve never felt more confident stepping up on stage as I did for this one. The Ben Franklin quote “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail” comes to mind. I’ve never felt more prepared, and I think the audience got the most bang for their buck from our session.

So, back to your question. Here are some thoughts:

  • Create a step-by-step guide for moderator’s. Even if they only follow half of the points mentioned above, a lot of panels would benefit from it.
  • Moderator’s can’t be speakers; one or the other. Having to prepare decks AND be a moderator would be extremely tough, and if you have to focus on one, I can almost guarantee it’s not going to be the latter.
  • Don’t overload the moderators. I’ve seen conferences where the same person moderated many, many panels. This has to be tough (make’s me feel sorry for you and D. Sullivan). You can only be spread so thin, and the quality is bound to suffer.
  • Choose moderator’s early, and have them assist with speaking pitches. If you have 20 speaking proposals, have the moderator narrow the applicants down to the top 5 (or so), and then forward to you for the final decision. Ask them to put the presentations in order of which ones they feel would be most beneficial to the audience and more importantly, why. This will give you insight into their thought process in choosing speakers.
  • Incentivize them. I’m not saying foot their bar bill, but offer them something. Free conference pass, ½ off for a friend or coworker, invitations to invite-only parties, high-end conference-specific swag for speakers/moderators (ad:tech does this), etc. There are lots of things you could do here.
  • Have the potential moderators pitch. Way in advance have them send you an email as to why they’d make a good moderator. Even better, you could post a list of 5-10 questions for them to answer. With the right questions, I’ll bet it wouldn’t be too hard to find some great moderators.
  • Build a moderator’s wiki, to share best practices. After the conference, ask each of them to post what they did right, what the audience seemed to respond to the most, and what they would do differently if asked to moderate again. (You could also do this for speakers). Imagine the value of the wiki 2-3 years out in getting new moderator’s up to speed.
  • Have the audience rate moderator’s. This may already be happening, but if not, I’d be sure to add it.

Finally, since I’ll definitely be attending Pubcon this year (to defend my poker crown), I’d be happy to assist, if needed.

Now… what did I forget to add to the list for moderator’s?

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