A panel discussion is one of many approaches to talking about a specific subject. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a panel’s worth (or could be worth) a hundred speeches. The format gives audience members the opportunity to listen to different points of view on selected topics, and weigh the merits of each perspective.
A moderator has several roles and responsibilities, including being an instigator for the conversation, a champion for the audience, and a timekeeper for the panelists.
Here are a few tips and tricks for moderators:
- First, select your panelist carefully. Invite people with various backgrounds and experiences. Depending on the session topic and objectives, you may e.g. match a visionary leader with a pragmatic technical expert – one with strategic insight with one who knows how to implement this strategy;
- When you’re moderating a session, make sure that you know your panelists. Get in touch with them at least a week in advance, and make sure you know what ideas they stand for;
- Choose a few provocative conversation topics, make sure that your panelists disagree on some of them (otherwise prepare yourself for a boring session), and put your speakers in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch rather than behind a cold wooden table;
- Introduce your guests with a short bio, tell why you (or the event organizers) picked them to contribute to the conversation, and how happy you are that such authorities are joining your panel;
- Then continue with a brief introduction of the topic of the day, and let each panelist make a short statement or present 1 or 2 slides (not more!) before you address the audience for comments and questions;
- Make sure you prepare a few questions for each topic or speaker for in case the audience is not interactive as you would have expected (or hoped). It’s a good practice is to ask your panelists for Q&A suggestions before the session;
- It’s important for the moderator to have a strong ability to respect timing, handle questions from the audience, and deal with the dynamic of the panelists’ responses. Block long and intricate discussions, product presentations, and commercial messages. Most members of your audience are probably not interested in the nitty-gritty details, your panelists’ company profiles, or hard sales pitches. Also, make sure that you give equal airtime to the different speakers, and don’t let one personality dominate the discussion – not even when he is the most charming or humorous panelist.
Photo: The Muppets panel at the 2015 Disney/ABC Summer TCA Tour
In contrast to giving a public presentation that is one-to-many, a panel discussion is a many-to-many (or at least a few-to-many) conversation. Each panelist is confronted with the challenge of being part of the group, while at the same time trying to stand out from the other speakers.
- Keep in mind that as a panelist you won’t be able to practice your content in the same way you would for a solo presentation. So, make sure you come on stage as a subject matter authority with lots of background information about the topic. Mitigate the risks of having to repeat your fellow debaters. Prepare stories to share with the panel, anecdotes to engage the audience, and facts and figures to spark the debate;
- If you get the opportunity to present a few slides upfront to the Q&A or interactive discussion, please keep it short. The people in the room are expecting a lively conversation (or even more a discussion) amongst the panelist, not a boring monologue by each of them;
- Listen well to what your fellow panelists say, and try to be as reactive to their words as possible. Even when I’m giving a public speech at an event, I’m trying to get in well in advance to listen to the preceding speakers and (if applicable) ad some links to their content in my own presentation;
- I have written a few blog posts about knowing your audience when you are giving a presentation. I also recommend to do similar upfront research on the other panelists, they may be allies or friends, and very often they work for one of your competitors.
If you have other good advice, tips or tricks for moderators or panelists, please share them via the “Leave a Reply” field below.