“It usually takes three weeks to make a good impromptu speech,” is a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain.
The same could be said for moderating – the more prepared you are, the more relaxed and natural you will be.
Not many people moderate a full-blown conference, but many executives may be asked to chair a debate at an internal or external event.
I’ve done a large number – with varying degrees of success – and have learnt along the way that 95% is down to the work you do before you get anywhere near a stage.
In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to moderate dynamic events such as The Barclays Travel Forum and The Global Travel Group conference, both of which have many different elements, lots of people to interview and audience participation.
I simply wouldn’t dream of tackling such events without having planned out every session in detail.
With each event, I’ll have between 20 -30 pages of notes with me. I often don't need to refer to them, but they are my comfort blanket – there to help out if necessary.
Here are my top 10 tips for moderating an event – and the focus is heavily on the work you do before the big day.
1. Be clear about everything
If you’re the hired hand, you may well have a say in proceedings, but you probably won’t be dictating the content of the event. However, it’s vital that you have a clear picture of how each session will run and what is expected of you. If you’re sharing a stage with others at any time, you need to know who is saying what and you’ll want to be clear about the focus of each session.
2. Research, research, research
This is donkey work, but it’s vital and will pay dividends for you on the day. Research the people who you are interviewing, so you know something beyond the bald facts of their CV. If you are questioning someone on stage, know your subject thoroughly, have a logical set of questions (and enough interesting questions to fill the time slot) and know what is topical.
3. Speak to everyone
I always speak to everyone involved beforehand, to help put them at ease and try to ensure that it will be an interesting and stimulating event. From a selfish point of view, if they remember it as a great conference, they are far more likely to give me good feedback. I tell people where they are going to be sitting, how I’m going to introduce them and their cue to come to the stage. If I’m interviewing people, I don’t tell them the 20 questions I’m going to be asking them, but I do tell them that I’ll be asking their opinions on X, or I want to discuss Y. I want them to think about the interview and come up with some interesting answers. If I’m talking to them about business, I might say “you don’t have to tell me now, but have a think about the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome/your most bizarre request/the worst day you’ve ever had’ etc because I may ask you about that. Often people can’t think of these things on a stage in the spur of the moment and you can miss out on interesting stories.
4. Take notes on a clipboard
I love gadgets and at various conferences have an ipad to take live twitter questions. But I always use an old-fashioned clipboard with stapled notes for my running times, introductions and questions. Technology has a habit of breaking down at the worst possible moment and you don’t want to be frantically pushing buttons and re-booting in the middle of a conference.
5. Have a plan B
Preparation enables you to paint a picture in your mind of how each session will run and that, in turn, puts you at ease and gives you the confidence to deliver a good performance. But you always need a plan B in case something goes wrong – for example one of your speakers doesn’t turn up. Nothing ever goes exactly to plan and you need to be able to keep calm and handle any eventuality.
6. Visit the venue
I always visit a venue some time before to see the stage, where people will be sitting, the chairs people will be using on the day, whether there will be clip mikes, a lectern mike or hand held mikes, etc. If you have the choice, I strongly advise wearing a clip mike as this gives you the freedom to move around the stage and connect with your audience. A lectern mike has you routed in one place, while a hand-held mike is awkward and makes you feel like a cabaret singer.
7. Arrive hours early
There’s nothing worse than being on a delayed train or tube and starting to sweat because you think you might be late. Arrive early, have breakfast at or near the venue (if it’s morning!) and relax before the others arrive.
8. Don’t worry about nerves
A few nerves are natural and it can be a good thing – they keep you on your toes and stop you getting complacent. But you need to be able to control them. In my experience, the single biggest thing that controls nerves is proper preparation – you know you’ve done the hard work and are equipped to do a good job.
9. Look your best
Some people present and moderate in jeans and t-shirts. They think that’s cool (maybe it is) or they just can’t be bothered to make an effort (maybe that's also cool). That’s not for me. Look sharp, feel good and give it your best.
10. Enjoy it!
It’s a great way to earn a bit of money or enhance your reputation. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy it – provided you've done your homework. And keep things in perspective. It’s not a great feeling if you drop your notes or an interview falls flat in front of a few hundred people, but remember this: at the end of the day it’s only a first world problem. Keep calm, ride it out and people will remember you as a smooth operator in a difficult situation.