Panel discussions are a popular way to present information. We’ve learned a lot over the years as we’ve helped organizations make theirs better. In this series, we’re providing tips for planners, moderators, and panelists—to help you make sure the panel discussions you play a role in will live up to their potential.
Oh, look. There’s a panel discussion on the program. Imagine that.
After all, they’re only a staple of conferences. A go-to format for think tanks that host public forums. A featured session at many annual company meetings and retreats.
In short, they’re everywhere.
At their best, panels provide a variety of viewpoints, the chance to hear different voices, and lively discussion.
Far too often, though, we see panels that deliver something else:
Whether you’re a moderator, panelist, audience member, or the organizer, you can do your part to make panel discussions more engaging.
Every month this year, we’ll share tips and techniques we’ve learned working with individuals and organizations to achieve just that.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Why is this panel discussion taking place at all?
"A panel discussion should never be a time filler, easy option or done simply because it is 'expected.'"– From the "Ultimate Guide to Panel Discussions" at eventmanagerblog.com
This goes especially for the person who’s organizing the panel, but it’s critical for the moderator and panelists, too. If you’re spending your time—and taking up the audience’s time—you need to know where the value is for all of you.
Whether you’re the person who decided “hey we need a panel discussion” or an (un)willing participant, consider these five questions:
Organizations use panel discussions for any number of reasons, including these we’ve heard:
These can all be legitimate reasons. The most important thing is that you know why you’re choosing to go with this format—and what you want the audience to take away.
We see a lot of people default to the panel discussion, because they believe it will somehow be less work or automatically be less boring. Neither of these is necessarily true.
It helps to first understand your mission (see above).
For example, if you’re trying to explore a full range of views, you should seek out panelists who have different slants—whether it’s a difference in age and background or a full-blown difference of opinion. This may seem obvious, yet we see a lot of panels that consist of people who are all saying the same thing in the same way.
If your goal is to showcase more of your executive team to employees or investors, the selection process might not be as open. After all, they are who they are. The opportunity here might be to tweak the topic or to choose a moderator who can bring a fresh perspective or facilitate a lively discussion that lets each panelist bring their experience or expertise to the subject.
"Eventually, someone on a panel you moderate is going to develop a serious case of motor mouth."– Rebekah Iliff, giving advice to panel moderators in Entrepreneur magazine
It seems the number one resource should be the members of your panel. Be sure to create a plan (see next section) that makes the best use of what panelists have to offer.
All participants should also consider:
Obviously, these questions are better answered when you understand the reason behind the panel discussion.
We find there’s uncertainty about this with many of the groups we coach--which leads to the misconception that panels are easier to produce than presentations.
If you’re coordinating the panel, it helps to have a prep plan that includes a few clear-cut steps and a timeline for getting everyone on board with the why. If you're participating, don't be shy about asking for direction.
That direction might include:
"The best panel presenters are adept at simplifying their content—making it feel more relatable and connected to the audience’s own knowledge and experience."– From a Stanford Business School article on how to produce audience-focused panels
The best panel discussions give the audience something they wouldn’t get by just hearing a series of individuals speak on a topic.
As you put your panel discussion together, keep the audience in mind:
Another benefit of an audience focus is this: It helps you avoid the “exclusive club” feeling that some panel discussions create. You’ve probably seen panel discussions that devolved into semi-private conversations or ego-fests, as if the panel has gone out for happy hour to talk shop and you’re the unlucky spouse who had to tag along.
Before you agree to organize a panel discussion...before you agree to participate as a moderator or panelist...know why this discussion is on the agenda, why you have something to contribute, and why the audience cares.
Want to read more about how panels can connect with specific audiences? Here's a good article from Stanford Business School that explores the topic
Our online magazine with tips, news, and instruction for youView All Entries ⟶