There is more to running a successful Panel Discussion than just having some good questions, interesting guests and a moderator!
A successful Panel needs a plan!
Over the last 10 years I’ve moderated over 100 Panel Discussions and observed another hundred or so.
Here are my Tips & Guidelines for running a successful Panel Discussion. They should be useful for any Conference Organiser or Conference Director setting up a session at their event and also for an MC or Panel Discussion Moderator.
Panel Discussion Basics
What is a Panel Discussion?
A Panel Discussion is a specific type of session usually seen at conferences & conventions. A number of invited guests are involved onstage at the same time, usually with a moderator asking them questions and controlling the flow of the event. A Panel discussion may or may not also involve questions from the audience.
Contrasting opinions, personal experience/insights and lively discussion amongst guests are often a highlight of a successful Panel Discussion.
Panel Discussion Objectives
You should be clear about what you are trying to achieve with your Panel Discussion.
Are you trying to get explore one topic in depth or a number of them?
How will you “sell” the session in any pre event publicity?
Why should the audience care about this session?
How much audience involvement do you want?
What do you want the audience to take away from the session?
Do you want contrasting views and insights from the Panellists?
Size of Successful Panel Discussion
I think Four is the perfect number of Panellists!
Three is still OK if someone drops out at the last minute, but you may need to work a little harder to keep the conversation flowing and will need a few more questions. With just two people you really have moved into an “interview” situation, which is beyond the scope of this article.
If you go up to five people, there is really not enough time to get a significant contribution from every panellist or to ask more than a quick question each.
(For example – Opening framing comments 5 mins, Intros 5 mins, 5 x opening thoughts 25 mins, that’s 35 minutes before you get a question or even open it up to the audience!)
So, if I’m involved in organising a Panel, I’ll always go for 4 members. And this does not include the Panel Moderator. (see Note Below.)
How long should a Panel Discussion Last
I believe 50-60 minutes is about right for most Panel Discussions.
This fits in with most peoples attention spans and the format of most Conferences and Association Meetings.
If you go too much shorter than this, you really will not get too much past an opening thought from each speaker and possibly one or two questions each. Go too long and the whole thing can drag on a bit.
Once a Panel Discussion gets going the time really flies by. What can seem like a long time to fill for a new moderator will suddenly disappear in a flash. 55 minutes seems to hit the sweet spot.
What is the Role of the moderator in a Panel Discussion
The Moderator is the Glue that holds the session together and they have many tasks to juggle.
These include –
Understanding what the client is trying to accomplish by having a Panel
Working with the Panellists pre event
Creating interest and setting expectations with the audience
Framing the session and the theme at the start of the session
Introducing the Panellists
Asking Questions of the Panellists
Encouraging interaction between the Panellists
Controlling the Time including Finish time and making sure each Panel member gets appropriate speaking time
Setting any “guidelines” and “ground rules” for Questions from the floor
Facilitating the Q & A
Providing a brief summary at the end
Thanking the Guests.
Choice of Moderator
Do you need a topic expert to moderate a successful panel discussion?
Yes and No. Having some knowledge of the topic being discussed is a great benefit, however I strongly believe having a strong understanding of the essential skills of running a great Panel Discussion is far more important.
Being able to tease interesting views from the Panel members and great questions from the audience. But also, importantly, to further the aims of the whole event. To tie the discussion into the Theme of the Event and to keep it on time!
You can have a Panellist take on the Moderator Role, but it generally works much better if they do one thing or the or the other.
Style of Panel Discussion Moderation
There are several different styles of Panel Discussion Moderation.
If you have never Moderated a Panel before, this quick guide may give you some direction as you start preparing your questions and comments.
If you are organising a Panel, have a think about which style you think works best with the outcomes you have identified for the session. This may help you choose which moderator you want to use or help you brief them pre event.
Warm & Friendly
Possibly the easiest style and most familiar to us. The TV chat show style. Starting with a few “getting to know you” questions, then some “what’s happening now” questions, which is a chance for the speaker or sponsor to mention their current projects, new products etc. The moderator is there to ensure they relax and open up a bit.
Confrontational / Investigative
This is more of a Current Affairs TV style. Possibly opening with harder hitting questions and a bit more probing. You might also be getting some apposing or contradictory viewpoints from the different panellists.
The “I don’t know anything” Moderator
In some cases you might be asked to moderate a panel when you don’t really know anything about the topic. Rather than pretend you do, one approach is to embrace “I don’t know anything .. tell me.
Get some explanation of what the big Challenges are. Then, what’s being done currently, then what more would you like to see being done.
These three phases will take you through plenty of discussion. You can get more Panel Discussion Questions here.
Pre Event Briefing
A lot of event organisers feel a need to get all the Panellists together for a phone / Skype chat a few days before the event.
While I think this is a good idea in some respects, in reality, the effort and time involved is possibly not worth it. Getting a time that suits all panellists is also tricky and then invariably one of them drops out, so not everyone is present anyway.
My suggestion here is to get some email dialogue between the panellists and the organiser going pre event. This lets the Panellists know who else is on the Panel and your aims.
As a Moderator, I always ask them to provide a couple of starter questions each. This lets them steer the Panel in the direction they want, to get their points across, so it’s worthwhile for them to be there. I also have other questions that they don’t know in advance to keep the spontaneity.
If possible I like them to get together on the day, at the venue, sometime before the event to have a quick meet up. As a MC and Moderator, I always like to have a quick chat to any Speaker before the event.
With a Panel, I like to emphasise a few different points at that meet up.
Make sure they know what time you are aiming to finish.
Encourage them to ask each other questions.
Encourage them to respond to each others comments/answers.
This gives a nice free flowing feel to the session and can add humour and contrasting views.
Panel Discussion Logistics
If at all possible have a microphone for each Panellist.
Sharing microphones can work, but there are a couple of problems. If you are sharing a handheld, it takes time to pass it up and down the row and there is always the danger that another speaker will hijack it on the way past, losing precious time. You also lose the spontaneous chit chat and banter between Panellists which is a great part of successful panels.
Table microphones are great but have one problem, they tend to be a bit tricky to get the sound level perfect. So if you are constantly swivelling them between speakers, the sound person is going to have to work hard to keep it sounding good.
So, if at all possible, have a microphone each.
Table and Chairs
Get out from behind the table!
Most conference venues immediately set up a row of chairs behind a thin draped table when they think about setting up a Panel Discussion. How about mixing it up a bit!
A row of Bar Stools works well as does a group of armchairs or even a sofa or two. Getting out from behind the table seems to make a much nicer “connection” to the audience and encourages more interaction between the guests.
Note – If you are going with the low armchair approach, check the sight lines from the audience point of view. Sometimes a stage monitor, monitor screens etc can suddenly block the view of the panel.
A lot of venues setting up for an event spend all their energy getting the light right for the lectern but neglect the lighting for the panel area. Make sure they know early on that you will be running a Panel Session and that you need adequate lighting there as well.
Holding Slide & Social media contact points
If possible, it’s great to have a PowerPoint “holding slide” up on the screen with the Panellists names, roles and social media contact points. There are a few good reasons for this.
Sometimes Panellists names are not listed in the conference agenda and may be subject to last minute changes. Sometimes audience members miss the start of the session, so this also helps them know who’s on.
If the Names and Roles are listed, you can also trim a few moments off your introductions if time is tight.
Having the Social Media contact points also makes it easier for the Audience to look people up and the Speakers usually appreciate having their networks given a plug.
Panel Discussion Script
Lengthy Introductions to each panellist can really cut into the length of time available. Even with just 2 -3 minute introductions, this can be 10 minutes lost before you even start, with a panel of 4.
So really just pick out the main points that relate to the topic at hand. Establish their credibility to be there on the panel and then get on with it. If Bio’s are printed in an agenda, there is also no need to spend too much time on them.
Do you really need introductions? Sometimes the Panel are so well known to the audience that no real introduction is needed.
An alternative is to let the Panellists each introduce themselves and explain what they do. This allows them to mention the areas that are most important to them.
If possible let the Panel and the Audience know what time you aim to finish. I try and mention this to the Panel in the pre session briefing. This is important, as you can then work as a team. It’s also helpful if you need to cut someone short, the time shortage is the justification.
I also mention it as we go through the session. ” We only have 10 minutes left and I really wanted to ask …” etc.
Panel Discussion Questions
Our Professional MC’s Cheat Sheet contains plenty of generic Panel Discussion Questions and you can Download it free HERE.
Panel Discussion Format
There are a few different standard ways to structure a Panel Discussion.
Mini Presentations –
Each Panellist gives a short Presentation that they have pre-prepared. Depending on time available this could be up to 10 minutes each. This is followed by a short session of either Questions from Moderator or Audience. These presentations can sometimes include PowerPoint slides.
This is quite a useful format if there are a huge number of speakers that you would like to use, or must use, but don’t really have the time to fit them all into the schedule. Some events have Sponsors or Exhibitors that are promised some Stage Time as part of their Sponsorship Deal and this is a good way to fulfil that agreement.
Initial Remarks –
A more effective and engaging format is to get some Initial Remarks from each Pannelist and then move into the Questions. The Initial Remarks can be around 3-4 minutes each, still leaving plenty of time for interactive questions.
Standard Approach –
Probably the most used structure is to get straight into the questions.
After some “framing” comments from the Moderator, a series of pre prepared questions from the moderator and then opening it up for questions from the floor.
The Audience at a Successful Panel Discussion
Prime the Audience
If you are the MC at an event with a panel, it’s good to “set up” the session earlier on in their minds. Let them know that it’s coming up, remind them of the topic and that you will be asking for questions etc. Then when the session is on, you should get more input from the audience.
Seed Panel Discussion Question
Another way to encourage involvement with the Audience is to seed a couple of Questions.
If you know you will be opening it up to questions from the floor, have a chat to a couple of audience members before the session. Provide them with a simple question that they could ask.
Once those first couple have been asked, people get far more relaxed and you will usually then get a barrage of questions.
If your audience are reticent to ask questions during the session, a work around is to have Table Discussions. Ask each table to discus amongst themselves one of the points. A person may be reluctant to speak in front of a few hundred people, but they will usually be happy to chat at their table.
What is the big Challenge?
What more would you like to be done?
Depending on time available, you can then get a few tables to report back via a roving microphone and get the Panellists to make comments.
If you are getting questions from the floor in either Q & A or in a Panel Session, I always ask that people identify who they are and where they are from. There’s a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it gives the Speaker or Panellist some context and allows them to answer the question more appropriately. Secondly, it also acts as a slight filter, you are going to get more sensible questions and less likely to get someone disrupting.
Poll the Audience
This technique is a good way of keeping the audience involved. Ask for a show of hands at different points.
How many of you agree that that is the major challenge?
Who would like to see more done in that regard?
(You can also Poll the Panel at different points.)
As with normal Q & A sessions, you do need to be firm with people in the audience taking over the microphone. You do not want to lose control. The audience generally wants to hear from the experts and not a long winded opinion from a fellow delegate.
When you set up the session ask them to keep questions or comments short. Don’t be afraid to politely but firmly interrupt someone from the audience or for that matter from a panellist.
A mistake that some beginner Moderators make is that they are so wrapped up in the Panel Discussion Questions that they ignore the Answers!
Listen to the Answers and build your next question around them.
Could you elaborate a bit on that?
So, you’re saying that …?
John, how do you respond to what Paul mentioned?
Important Point – It’s Not about You!
Remember, the Moderator is there to encourage the conversation and not to make points or offer much input. That’s one of the reasons why an outside moderator is much better than one of the Panel Members driving the session.
Be prepared to Step Back when needed and let the conversation flow!
Panel Discussion Question – Closer
I always like to have one question ready to close the session. A question that each Panellist can answer quickly, but also allows them to answer in a different way. It lets them either make a point again or say something that they forgot to mention during the session. I also keep it fairly light-hearted, so the session ends on an up note or possibly a laugh. (see the Cheat Sheet for Examples.)
Mention the Skill!
If you are an Emcee or Conference Speaker, mention in your Publicity Material that you are experienced in Moderating Panel Discussions. Event Organisers may not consider you for the role and including this may help you secure more assignments and help you become indispensible.
If you have never done any facilitation, don’t be intimidated by it. I have listed a couple of great Resources HERE.
When I was asked to facilitate my first one, the thought of it was fairly daunting. How many questions will I need? What if I run out of Questions? What happens if there’s an argument?
Follow the tips and tactics above and you will be fine and each subsequent one you facilitate will be easier.