12 Guidelines for Great Panel Discussions
Advice for Event Organizers and Moderators
ome panels crackle with energy, elicit fresh ideas, and bring the audience into the discussion. Others plod along, and by the fifteen-minute mark the audience is checking Blackberries and thumbing through the program.
While it’s of course important for every panel to have a tight focus or value proposition (what is the audience going to get out of it?), and for the moderator to have a sense of how to structure his questions and juggle the different points of view, I’m going to leave those issues for another day. Instead, I want to talk about how a panel’s success can hinge upon some subtle, under-appreciated factors — all of which need to be considered well before the day of the event arrives. Some of the factors may seem insignificant, but I’ve found that each one has a big impact on how much your audience will get out of your panel.
1. Length and panel size.
The ideal length for a panel discussion is 45 minutes to one hour. The ideal number of participants is 4-5, plus moderator. .. but once you get to seven, everyone on the panel starts to get anxious about getting enough airtime.
In cases where some of your panelists plan to show slides (more on that later), you may need to extend a panel to 90 minutes, but my rule is that there should be no more than one 90-minute session per day at a seminar or conference – that’s a long time to ask the audience to sit and pay attention. And ninety-minute sessions are best scheduled for the morning, rather than the end of the day.
2. Choosing a moderator. Every panel needs a strong moderator, and the role of the moderator is very different from the role of a panelist. I don’t recommend having one of your panelists try to fill both roles.
The best moderator is someone who has moderated panels in the past, understands the subject matter, knows a bit about the panelists, and realizes that she is there to guide the conversation – not to impress the audience with her brilliance. The moderator is there to make the speakers look good and make sure that they connect with the audience. Moderators also need an innate sense of pacing (how long each panelist should talk, and how long she should dedicate to each topic before moving on) and a smooth approach to weaving in questions from the audience.
There is a very delicate balance between a moderator who talks too much and one who doesn’t talk enough. The moderator who talks too much typically believes that she should contribute as much to the panel as the panelists, and is as much of an expert as they are, and wants to convey that to the audience. The moderator who doesn’t talk enough lets the inmates run the asylum: some panelists will go on long jags, discoursing on topics that are not related to the panel at all.
Journalists, analysts, industry “gurus,” and consultants can all make good moderators, since they’re accustomed to asking probing questions. (I tend to think that people without something to sell to your audience work best as moderators, which sometimes excludes consultants and industry gurus, who may be inclined to shill for their services.)
Be clear with your moderator that you are entrusting her to run the show, but that you’d like her to spend a fixed amount of time (usually no more than five minutes) introducing the speakers and teeing up the discussion before bringing in the perspectives of the panelists. It’s also a good idea to let your moderator know that she has the authority to politely cut off or redirect speakers if they stray. But an experienced moderator will already know that.
I often tell moderators that they are “all-powerful” – but I expect them to know that that doesn’t mean they’re the star of the panel. I often tell speakers that the moderator will “guide the conversation,” so that they know what to expect, and aren’t surprised if the moderator reins them in or redirects them.
3. Panelist guidelines and advance preparation. I think it’s a good idea to communicate with panelists at least twice before the event — and yes, it is possible to over-communicate, annoying your panelists and causing them to pay less attention to the materials you send them.
4. topics/themes of the session, and what you hope to achieve.
Explain how the session will proceed, and what each panelist should be prepared to do. (Often, I find myself saying, “Don’t bring a prepared speech or a PowerPoint presentation, just your anecdotes, recent experiences, and data points about this topic.”)
I also frequently mention that it’s not a bad idea to accentuate conflicts and differences of opinion (not in an aggressive way, of course), rather than highlighting areas where the panelists agree (“I agree with what the other four panelists said.”) That makes for an action-packed and enlightening panel.
5. Setting the stage. The worst kind of set-up for a panel discussion, unfortunately, is the one you encounter most often in hotel ballrooms and convention centers. There is a long table on a raised stage, usually draped with a red tablecloth, with chairs behind it. The moderator stands at a podium apart from the speakers. There is a gap of about twenty feet between the stage and the first row of seats.
It’s much better not to hide your panelists behind a table. The audience will appreciate seeing them better: body language is a very subtle thing, and it’s often part of panel discussions, especially when people joke with one another or disagree about something. Give your panelists tall stools, or regular chairs, to sit on. (If you have a few side tables that can go between some of the chairs, or a low coffee table that can go in front of them, those can be handy for placing pitchers of water or notes that your speakers may carry onstage with them.)
The chairs should be arranged in a slight semi-circle, since putting them in a straight line makes it hard for panelists to see one another. This is important: remove any extra chairs that may have been left onstage from previous panels. Otherwise, there will be vast oceans of space between your panelists, and the audience will wonder who didn’t show up.
The moderator should sit with the panelists so that he or she can guide the conversation, not at a podium; I usually like to sit in the middle.
Your objective should be to get the first row of seats as close to the stage as possible, and to encourage people to sit in them. This raises the energy level in the room. It makes your speakers feel more accountable to the audience, and it helps your audience feel like they’re part of the conversation. Make sure that when your entire audience is seated and the panelists are in their chairs, the audience will be able to see the panelists. Otherwise, their attention will quickly drift. Sometimes this entails bringing in a riser/stage, or using the aforementioned stools or tall chairs.
9. Question and answer period. For an hour-long panel discussion, you should allocate at least fifteen minutes at the end for questions. Twenty or thirty minutes is better, if you think the audience will have lots of questions and if the panel is more educational in nature.
I can’t emphasize enough how important a Q&A period is; without one (or with an abbreviated one), it sends the message that the audience is there to be passive listeners, rather than active participants.
The moderator might also choose to let the audience know that he or she will take questions throughout the panel discussion, if audience members raise their hands. The key with doing that is not to allow an off-topic or obscure question to derail the panel and bore the other audience members. If you get a super-detailed question that seems like it is only of interest to the questioner, the moderator can easily ask one panelists to address it, and then move on.
During the main question-and-answer period, the moderator should try to avoid calling on the same person twice until everyone has gotten a chance to ask a question. In the event that there are no questions immediately, it’s good for the moderator to either have someone in the audience (perhaps one of the organizers) primed to ask a question, or for the moderator to have an extra question or two in reserve.
Not everyone on the panel needs to weigh in on every question; my goal as a moderator is usually to try to get as many audience questions into the Q&A period as possible.
10. Watching the clock. It’s the moderator’s job to make sure no panelist drags on for too long, and that there’s plenty of time for questions at the end. To help the moderator and panelists, you may want to have a digital countdown clock that all of the speakers can see positioned at the edge of the stage.
But the lower-tech approach is to have a person in the back of the room holding up signs (with BIG LETTERS) that say “10 Minutes,” “5 Minutes,” and “1 Minute.” Introduce your moderator to this timekeeper before the session starts, so that he or she will know whom to look for.
11. Thank your panelists.
You really can’t thank your panelists and your moderator enough for helping out with your event. Some people give them a small gift at the event, or send a nice handwritten note afterwards, or both. If you got positive feedback from your audience about the panel – either on feedback forms or just informally after the session – you should also convey that in your note.
( An Email from Prof. Evangelos Afandras)