10 Rules for Being a Great Moderator
Being a moderator is nowhere near as easy as many people think. This article is meant to support you
in becoming a great moderator.
Everyone has at some point in their working lives come out of a meeting feeling that it was a big
waste of time. People get frustrated, bored, lazy or just plain cynical when meetings don’t
accomplish much and there’s little to inspire or motivate. So, we need to do something to break the
pattern of boring or unproductive meetings!
Seminars and workshops should be dynamic, entertaining, funny and brave. If you treat your seminar
like a lecture, your audience will act like bored students. But treat your seminar like a performance
and your audience will be grateful. They will notice the difference!
Believe it or not, the success of a meeting comes down to the moderator.
Whenever groups of people get together, two things are usually true:
1. Everyone sees the world differently, no matter how similar their points of view may be
2. Everyone thinks their view is the right one
When there is a spirit of cooperation and a willingness to arrive at a mutually agreed outcome,
disparate points of view can work together, and people go away satisfied that their point of view has
been taken into consideration and utilised in some way. That is the role of the moderator.
So being a moderator is about being a calming and pragmatic influence that can make a significant
difference to the outcome of any kind of meeting, workshop, event, forum, etc. A good moderation
means to make things easier, to smooth the progress of and to assist in making things happen.
Moderation takes practice, so here are 10 things to remember which will help you become a
seriously good moderator:
1. Be neutral and objective: as a moderator you are not supposed to participate in the
discussion or share your own views, but to be an objective, impartial voice. If you have a lot
of things to say, then you should be part of the panel, and not the moderator. You have every
right to have an opinion. If you put it on the table, however, you would be taking sides. In the
role of the moderator, your personal opinions and feelings should remain unspoken.
Imagine yourself being slightly distanced (physically) from what’s going on; sitting just
outside the group so you can observe the dynamic of what’s going on. You may still be sitting
right in the middle, but part of you is outside looking in.
Often when people come together with widely differing points of view, it’s very hard to hear
the other side’s arguments. What you are demonstrating by being objective and keeping an
open mind is that you hear both sides. By keeping an open mind yourself, you actually model
effective behaviour from your audience. In my experience, when this happens, it does calm
people down and helps them see that there is more than one way to do things.
Being objective and neutral also entails having the ability to craft how a meeting goes, rather
than imposing your will and your point of view. As the moderator, it is not your job to answer
questions but to raise questions for your audience to reflect upon.
2. Create a nice environment: since the idea is to ease the way for people, it’s important not to
put anyone on the spot, embarrass or humiliate them. If anyone at the meeting puts a
colleague on the spot, you can take the spotlight yourself or manoeuvre it onto someone
else who won’t mind being centre-stage for a while. It's about creating a non-judgemental,
objective environment where people feel they can air their opinions without getting shot
down or humiliated.
3. Be clear: Your job is to visibly and audibly keep the panelists (people who will hold a
presentation) on track, thus helping the audience feel safe and secure. So be clear about
telling people why they're there, what's going to happen, and when it's going to end. Let
there be no uncertainty that you're in charge and going to make this worthwhile. Ask short
questions and make clear statements.
4. Keep it simple: Clarify! Simplify! Sometimes a facilitator acts as a translator, not only
reflecting back what they’ve heard, but also interpreting it in a way that other people can
understand. A good facilitator is practiced in understanding the differing nuances, jargon and
meanings in what various people are saying and being able to explain that difference to
others. A useful phrase is “So what you’re saying is….”. This is because what people mean
and say will often be very different from how they are heard. Try to use analogies to help
people understand each other.
5. Be prepared: You will need to have a general understanding of the subject in order to be able
to steer the discussion. Have ready a set of topic-organised possible questions, provocative
statements, quotes from documents, or whatever conversation starters you think will work.
Be prepared, of course, to abandon all of them if the discussion takes an unexpected and
6. Encourage conversation: This should be obvious, but so often it’s not. Too many seminars
divide the time up into a few little presentations. Instead of a dynamic conversation, the
audience gets a series of slideshows. Instead, you should encourage the panellists to respond
to each other. When one panellist makes a point, ask the other what they think. If you know
that one of them disagrees, point that out. Don’t be afraid of disagreement! Smart people
disagree all the time. Get the presentations going as quickly as possible, so that you leave
enough room for discussion. People will often mention something that is confusing or
controversial, but will just continue as if it’s common knowledge. Don’t let this happen, as it
leaves a huge gap in the discussion. If the question popped in your head, it has probably
popped in the head of everyone else in the room. Ask the question that’s on everybody’s
mind but nobody dares asking!
7. Be able to think about more than two things at once: You will need to be listening to the
current discussion, while thinking about the overall planned discussion, the time, how long
the current discussion has gone on, and about where you want to go next on your way to
closing the workshop.
8. Be focused: As a rule you'll never get through more than three broad issues in a single
workshop or panel, so be careful not to over-stuff the thing trying to cover too many issues
at once. Sum up, when it looks as though there may be too many ideas floating around that
need clarification from people with differing points of view.
9. Be timely: This is very important. Get the workshop started on time, keep it moving, and
finish on time. Let people see you confidently check your watch. Let people know when there
is "only five minutes left". So if a panellist is going on too long, interrupt them. If someone is
boring you, they’re probably boring the audience too, so summarise and turn the attention
to someone else. If an audience member asks an uniformed question, rephrase it into
something more relevant for your panel. Interventions can take the shape of interrupting
someone, even when they’re in mid-flow, A good, gentle way to do that is to say, “I’m going
to interrupt you for a moment.”
10. Be fun: There are enough funereal, unsmiling, self-important, and over-serious workshop
moderators. If you don't have fun, your panel won't have fun, and your audience won't have
fun. If you created a relaxed and fun atmosphere people will be willing to share and learn
and your workshop will more likely be a success.
Drafted by Sonia Herrero, inProgress Director
inProgress is a dynamic social enterprise offering training and
consultancy services to non-governmental, non-profit organisations
and their donors in support of their work. It is our belief that in order
to make the most of the limited resources that most NGOs have, there