The Ultimate Guide to Moderating a Virtual Discussion

How to successfully have a great online video discussion.

Lessons From McLennan Community College's Virtual Educator - Zoom Blog

I have hosted hundreds of one-conversation dinner parties over the years.   

Moderating a great discussion by video has a lot of similarities to moderating a great dinner party but there are a few key differences.  

Quiet is golden

When hosting a great dinner party, you want to make sure you are in a quiet room so everyone can hear each other.

When hosting a virtual discussion, sound quality is also very important.  You want to have a discussion with the microphone on for all participants. The conversation will be much more organic if no one needs to be on mute.  That means all the participants need to be in a quiet place or have a very good headset.  

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Best discussions are 5-12 people where they can all see each other

The best discussions have 5-12 people.  The more the people, the better the skills needed for the moderator.  

Everyone should see everyone in the discussion so it is important that you view people in “grid view” (rather than speaker view).  Another nice feature of video chat is that they usually can put the people’s names on the screen (analogous to having nameplates for good dinner discussions).

How to do online Introductions

Usually when getting people together that do not all know one another, you go around the table and everyone quickly introduces themselves.  This is a good idea for virtual meetings too but it requires more moderation as it is not clear who is next. The moderator needs to jump in (“thank you Bill.  Susan: you’re up”).

Norms for discussions are important

Just like a great dinner party, you need everyone to show up on time and be engaged and present.  For virtual discussions, everyone needs to be present and not checking Twitter or another screen while the discussion is going on.  

A good moderator needs to enforce these norms and call people out that might be straying or looking less engaged.

Sending out questions ahead of time

Like a great dinner party, it is always good to send questions ahead of time to the group.  While you want people to be spontaneous, I found the very best discussions is when people have been able to give some thought to the topic first.  

I’m personally a big fan of TPQs (Thought Provoking Questions).  

Be energetic and use humor

The camera sucks up 50% of your energy … so be more energetic than normal.   

Also: use humor and levity in the discussion to get people engaged.  Be funny. Extra points if you do it with a posh British accent 🙂

you don’t need to be so formal is a good discussion

Cut people off

A good moderator cuts people off when they are speaking too long or making an obvious point.  

At a dinner table you can make subtle cues to get people to stop talking.  For instance, if I am moderating a dinner conversation, I will proactively seat the two most overbearing people next to me so I can gently tap them on the shoulder if they are speaking too long.  

You cannot tap people on the shoulder over video so you need to be a bit more forceful in cutting people off.  When opening the session, you might want to apologize in advance for cutting people off.  

Don’t let it get boring

Remember, if you’re bored by the conversation, so is everyone else! Start pushing it toward risky, overlooked, and non-obvious ideas. If you ever find your mind wandering, the conversation is not going well.  So intercede. 

Moderation means keeping the discussion flowing, not speaking much yourself

Good moderators always do less than their share of talking.  If there are 8 people, a good moderator should talk about 10% of the time.  That means you don’t need to “set the table” on the discussion.

Good discussions are actually discussions … not a series of mini lectures.  To do that your job is to engage people, pivot the conversation, and draw people in that have not participated in a while.  

Members of the SafeGraph team having a strategy discussion

Establish norms at the beginning of the discussion

Is the discussion off-the-record (mine usually are), then let people know.  

Also let people know this conversation will be moderated (and you might need to cut people off).  

… good luck!

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