From Stage to Screen: How to Moderate Effectively on Zoom

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November 12, 2020

From Stage to Screen: How to Moderate Effectively on Zoom

Co-written by Greg Wilkinson, Principal at Earnscliffe, and Shannon Watt, Vice President, Sustainability, Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

Good moderating is good moderating on any platform and always requires a combination of preparedness and acute listening,” says veteran moderator Allan Gregg of Earnscliffe – and it’s true.

But at the same time, there are enough differences to fundamentally change the experience for the audience if the moderator gets them wrong.  Here are five rules that will make you a more effective moderator on a video platform like Zoom.

#1 Preparation Still Rules

Being prepared is critical for any platform. As a moderator, have an advance conversation with each panelist or presenter to get to know them and to review their answers to possible questions. This will arm you with the ability to respond to what you hear and allow you to ask questions that you know have great answers.

Moderators need to be even more ready for technology snarls than in a live event because the effects can be more sudden and dramatic. The most likely time for a speaker to lose their internet connection or have their mute button go rogue is the moment when they say, “And if there’s one thing you need to remember it is —-”. Be prepared to move on to another topic, recap the content, begin to list potential questions to pose when the presenter returns, draw attention to something in the chat, or move directly to song and dance.

#2 – Be Less Funny, More Warm

Humour enables transitions and creates comfort. But a moderator is not a stand-up comic and doesn’t need to be funny to be successful. And being unfunny when trying to make people laugh is deadly. In a webinar format, or even a video meeting with more than a dozen participants, the empathetic and reinforcing group laughter that builds the sense of shared experience doesn’t happen. Attempts at humour are more likely to pancake when everyone can only hear one person at a time. Lean on humour a little less and warmth a little more. Be welcoming, curious and conversational. Presenters will appreciate it because they can be surprisingly uncomfortable in this format.

#3 – Pacing Is Much More Important

In Zoom world, the audience can go make a sandwich at any moment. The moderator’s job is to keep them present, not well fed; therefore, think about the triggers that cause viewers to drift to their email, wander off to the refrigerator or click on that puppy video.  You can encourage engagement by alternating between speaker view and shared content or polls to avoid long static screens or slide monotony.

Shorten the duration of presentations and build in conversational bridges. For example, if a speaker has a ten-minute slot with no planned Q&A, ask them to time their remarks to end at the seven-minute mark. Then allow the speaker to fill the remaining three minutes with responses to questions the audience is likely to have. Conversational bridges like, “You mentioned X, but tell us a little more about that” or “You didn’t mention Y that some people think is important” make the virtual event less formal and more relatable. It also gives the moderator the opportunity to coach the speaker live by letting them know through prompted questions that they are underselling or underexplaining key points.

#4 Know and Leverage Your Technology

Remember that depending on the platform, you don’t usually know whether you or your speakers are appearing to the participants as a postage stamp sized headshot on a phone or full screen on their wall mounted TV. Therefore, don’t use visual cues the way you might in a live event. There could be someone in the audience for whom it is their first video experience so remind everyone about the basics as well as anything in the session that requires a heads up such as polls, breakouts or question sorting apps. The moderator can also be present for the audience and the speakers by appearing to maintain eye contact. Placing speaking notes above and behind the camera allows the moderator to have a teleprompter presence to remain engaged with the audience and to be in position to read “body language” (or shoulders-up language at least).

#5 The Chat Is Where It’s At

Most platforms offer chat as an option. The moderator is effectively leading parallel linked sessions: the on-screen dialogue and the chat. A viewer who is engaged in the chat is less likely to wander off, and the moderator can dip into the chat and comment on the virtual dialogue to maintain or direct momentum. Moderators can encourage chat users by celebrating them by name – “Thank you to Alisha for that helpful link in the chat”.  If the moderator has the luxury of help, having someone act as the chat activator can dramatically increase participant engagement.

Like you, we are still wondering when or if the days of live conference panels and presentations will return, but in the meantime successful moderators can make our virtual sessions warmer, more informative and far more engaging.