My philosophy of panel moderation is that I'm facilitating and directing a conversation among as many people as possible. The panelists are people who, if programming has done its job, have already demonstrated that they have something interesting to say on the topic. So through the panelists, we can get a concentrated burst of focused discussion out there. Then the audience will extend that in their questions—et voilà!, we've just had a conversation about something we're all interested in, with more people than would be practical if we were just sitting around in a bar.
This philosophy means I take a pretty active role as a moderator. I don't enforce a "now each person answer this question down the line" style, because I find that stultifying, but I direct traffic a lot:
- I plan the structure of the panel. I find this critical to my feeling like the panel has been productive.
Ahead of time, I confer with the other panelists about what they'd like to talk about. Then I sketch out the main topics that we're going to cover, possibly with a preferred order, and I keep that visible in front of me, crossing things off as I go. We may not cover every thing or in the order I planned, but having a plan helps me keep things moving and cover as much ground as useful.
- I attempt to balance the flow of conversation between panelists.
For instance, I ask panelists to follow-up on something they've just said that seems to raise obvious questions or demand elaboration, while promising another panelist who's indicated they've got something to say that they're next (and then make sure to follow through). Or I ask panelists who've not spoken yet on a particular topic if they have anything to add. (This is why I like to sit at the end of the table, so I can see all the other panelists at once.)
- I attempt to balance the flow of conversation with and among the audience.
I do this in two major ways. First, I usually take audience questions at the close of major topics (not waiting until the end but not jumping in during the middle of a topic either). Second, I prioritize audience questions from people who haven't spoken yet.
(I say both of those up front, because I like transparency and find it useful. And I'm explicit when I take audience questions too: "I see you, I just want to see if anyone who hasn't spoken has something to add"; or, "Okay, in the front in the green shirt, then the second row in the red hat, then across the aisle with the dragon, then we need to move on because we're running out of time: go.")
- Regardless of my plans, I listen to what the other panelists and the audience are interested in, and let that be my guide as long as it's still within the scope of the panel description.
Once I was doing a panel with a very similar description to another I'd done, and it went in entirely different directions, so I threw out my plans and tried to fall back on "make sure everyone gets heard, make note of follow-up directions and try to use them to keep discussion going when it seems like one topic is exhausted." Another, my structure turned out to be too ambitious because a lot of people wanted to express, in very heartfelt ways, personal responses to the first part of my three-part structure, and it seemed obviously important to let that conversation happen without cutting it off too abruptly.
- ETA: one more I forgot: if it's a potentially fraught panel, I state extra ground rules up front to try and keep the panel from derailing in predictable ways (examples in one of the posts linked above). And, though you'll probably never need it, have the contact information for con security on you, too.
- ETA 2: include everyone in the conversation by remembering basic accessibility principles, thanks to sasha_feather in comments for the reminder. Make sure people can understand you/others: tell the audience to interrupt if something is inaudible; use microphones where available; show your mouth for lip-readers; summarize audience comments; don't rely solely on eye contact to identify audience members. Describe any visual materials being displayed. And not exactly accessibility, but on the topic of inclusiveness: don't assign gender to audience members (that is, don't say "the woman in the green shirt" when calling on people).
tl;dr: moderating panels is about making the conversation be the best it can. There are different ways to make that happen; these are mine.
What are yours?
(Also: no, I am not at WisCon this year. We are going to the UK for the Worldcon and I don't have enough vacation time. Alas. I hope those of you who are there have a great time.)