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Scott Gould is an author and authority on engagement. Formerly a church minister, he literally wrote the book on how people engage with ideas, things, and each other. As a consultant, he works with a wide and diverse range of organisations to help them engage employees, customers and communities in face-to-face and virtual settings.
We asked him to shine his light on the value of moderation, from the perspective of psychology.

So we all intuitively know that having a moderator at an event makes it better. Whether that’s being the host, leading panels, facilitating workshops, or conducting interviews, there is something about it that makes us more often than not include such a person in our events.

However, as good as this intuitive insight of ours is, it has some issues:

  • The first is that some people think they don’t need a moderator, perhaps believing it to be a matter of preference rather than a matter of psychological importance.
  • The second is that there’s of course a difference between moderating well and moderating poorly, but we don’t know the science that spans the gap, and instead assume this is merely a matter of talent.
  • A third issue is that virtual and hybrid situations can render our moderation useless unless we know what the purpose of moderation really is, because things simply do not just transfer from offline to online. However, we won’t address this in this article, and cover this another time.

So let’s address those first two points, using psychology and science as the basis of our answer. And, let’s start with a fundamental question that I’m sure has been answered many a time, but allow me to throw another answer into the pot:

Why bother with moderation?

And the answer is… the number 3.

The reason for this is that at an event, like when we meet someone for coffee, we have two parties. Now when we have coffee with someone new, it’s the case that adding a third person actually helps everyone have a better conversation[1].

There’s several reasons for why we converse better in groups of three, but the one I want to focus on is that in a situation where two people don’t know each other that well, a third person who knows the other two well plays the important role of the trusted third party[2].

The trusted third party is the bridge that helps the two people who don’t know each other get to know each other. They help reveal information about the two people to each other, and add their own credibility into the mix, which aids in building trust[3].

In other words, they are the moderator – the mediating factor that helps two parties interact with each other… just like moderators at our events help the two parties – the audience and the speakers or participants amongst each other – interact with each other by lending their trust and conversational aid.

This is why moderators are often people the audience already has some kind of connection with, such as geographic similarity or relevant authority[4], because there is existing trust and relational capital that can be leant to the speakers. However we should say that the idea that the moderators must have an existing relationship to the audience is a false one. Existing connection is one way to aid the establishment of trust and rapport, but trust and rapport can both be built quickly, with the main factor being how much the moderators focus on the needs of the audience above their own[5]. This is actually why content experts can often end up being poor moderators, because they are too focused on their own knowledge, a phenomena known as the curse of the expert[6].

Now the number 3 also relates to a second factor of why moderation is critical. All stories, as Aristotle famously observed, have three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end[7]. The trouble with events is that each speaker is sharing their own part of the story – let’s say in one speaker’s case, the middle of the story – generally without consideration of how it relates to the other talk. Thus, the story is one without a central narrative (which doesn’t make for good books or films!).

What the moderator does is bring all these threads together into a story, which as we’ll discover is precisely how we learn.

And this is what leads us to our second point:

What is good moderation?

We are constantly looking for stories. It’s how we learn, and how we are able to think forward into the future[8][9].

So when a moderator helps us construct the story, pointing out connections that we may have missed, questioning the speakers to get further information that helps the narrative, or helping audience members reflect on how they can apply the content to their own lives , they are making a better story[10].

Now, engagement is the process of coming together. To be more engaged is for two parties to be more together, and to be disengaged is for two parties to be separated. So the more together an audience member (and the whole audience) is with the event’s story – and not separated by confusion or irrelevance – the more engaged they will be.

And the more engaging an event is, the more valuable it will be[11].

Now that point on audience members being separated by confusion or irrelevance - which is to say, they are disengaged – is a critical one.

As we all know, it is easy for many speakers, panel members, interviewees to talk about things that simply aren’t relevant to the audience. This is the primary force that drives engagement – relevance, saliency, how much in common something has with us – and so it is the job of the moderator to moderate (literally from the Latin, to control) this and bring it back to relevance once again.

Now, there is much training and support out there in the techniques of good moderation. All of this is good, but my argument is that these techniques are mechanisms to achieve the goal of moderation – taking the audience on a journey through a series of speakers, panels, workshops, exercises, and so forth.

Grounding ourselves

As someone who focussed on engagement, I spend much of time covering first principles. What really is engagement? Why do we want it? How does it work? You’d think this should be obvious, but I have stacks of books about engagement on my shelf that never come near these key questions. Yet, if we really want to increase engagement, we’ve got to grasp these fundamental issues.

In the same way when it comes to moderation, if we do not understand the purpose of all our techniques, we can be a good moderator on paper, but may miss the whole point of what the moderation was for.

I’ve attempted to argue from research that moderation is standing in the middle, ensuring that the story that is being told on stage is one that the audience understand and are involved in. And that is a noble task indeed!

Scott Gould
Author, The Shape of Engagement

Scott Gould

[1] Wardhaugh, R. (1985). How Conversation Works. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[2] Brewer, M. B. (2003). Intergroup Relations (Second Edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press / McGraw-Hilll Education.

[3] BURT, R. S., & KNEZ, M. (1995). Kinds of Third-Party Effects on Trust. Rationality and Society, 7(3), 255–292.

[4] Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice, Fifth Edition. Boston: Pearson Education: 99

[5] Master, D. H., Green, C. H., Galford, R. M. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. New York: Free Press: 69.

[6] Hinds, Pamela J. (1999). "The curse of expertise: The effects of expertise and debiasing methods on prediction of novice performance". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 5 (2): 205–221. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.5.2.205

[7] Aristotle. (1961). Aristotle's poetics. New York: Hill and Wang.

[8] Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, 57(2), 243-259. doi:10.2307/1416950

[9] Eagelman, D. (2015). The Brain: The Story of You. Edinburgh: Canongate Books: 38-39

[10] Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. New York: Broadway Books: 19-20

[11] Pettit, R., Cook, W., Belmont, D., Sokolyanskaya, I. (2008). Experiential Marketing:

A Master of Engagement. Research on How Engaging Events Pay. ARF Event Engagement Consortium Study Findings.

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