How to Start a Panel Discussion
March 3, 2016
Panelist’s Point of View: Preparation, Panel Topics and the Right Panelists
March 23, 2016

I inhale just about everything on the web about panel discussions – the good, the bad, and the ugly. With 197 million entries on “how to moderate a panel,” I thought I would cull out the best advice from the top panel moderator/bloggers on the subject of panel discussions.

  1. Frame the Panel as a Debate with a Clear Question. “Avoid panels with the title, ‘What is the future of blah blah blah?’  This rarely works. It’s too vague. Instead the moderator should work with the panelists to frame a more definitive, and polarizing structure. ‘Will blogging still be here in the year 2012?’ Assign each panelist a yes or no end of that question. If they balk at this being artificial, ask them to propose a better question, or series of questions to frame the debate. Pick the right spine and many problems will take care of themselves.”  Scott Burkun.
  2. Command the Space.  The setup of the room is important. Do you want to be in the middle of the panel looking to either side like  Tony Jones on Q and A?  Do you want to be seated centrally in the middle of the audience,  like Drew Carey on Whose Line is it Anyway or the moderators of the US Presidential debates? Or do you want to stand at a podium next to the panel? All of these will shape the way you can command the attention of  panelists and audience.  The setup gives you another secret weapon. It is hard to confront somebody who is beside you. Compare sitting at a dinner table to standing at the front of a classroom. You can engineer this so that the most combative panelists are defused by sitting next to each other, or – if you want fireworks, sit them opposite each other and they’ll easily get into battle.  Claire Duffy.
  3. Choose Panel Members Carefully. Just as you would if planning the ultimate dinner party, you need the right mix of expertise, ability to express an opinion coherently and divergent points of view. If everyone is a senior vice president of blah-de-blah it won’t be as interesting as if there’s a customer or partner from outside the organization included. Research the panelists and know their points of view on the topic, as well as as much as you can about their interests and background. Look for diversity in backgrounds, opinions and vested interests. Be cognizant of the hidden agenda they’ll each have for agreeing to be on the panel.  Ian Griffin.
  4. Don’t Over-Prepare The Panelists.  Talk to the panelists. I outline what I want to see happen on that stage and share my thoughts with the panelists, ideally in a conference call versus individual calls. This is about working together on stage, and a conference call starts it off as a team versus ‘me.’ On the call, we discuss the individual goals of panel members and how they all fit together to achieve the overall goal of the panel. I discuss their thoughts and concerns, emphasizing that the discussion will be about successes, challenges and the future. Then we go through the no-no’s:
    • No use of slides. The only exception is if it’s a photo that tells an amazing story that can only be captured through an image.
    • No sales pitches – including selling yourself.
    • No questions given to panelists in advance, except for the lead question. Overview category questions are OK to share. This keeps the panel from over-preparing.” Denise Restauri.
  5. Open Smartly.  “Grab the attention of the audience with a relevant fact, statistic, quotation, anecdote or joke. Then welcome the audience, thank panelists, link the opening line to the purpose of the panel, and preview how the panel will unfold. Be explicit about when and how audience members can ask questions. The opening sets the tone for the entire panel; carefully craft and rehearse it until your delivery is smooth and enthusiastic.”  Christine Clapp.
  6. Moderator Intros Each Person.  “This is one of my personal pet peeves. Either each panelist is allowed to tell the room about themselves or the moderator reads out the pre-written bio. The issue is, given an open window, panelists can talk about themselves for 3-5 minutes each. Doesn’t seem like much, except with 4 panelists and a moderator that can last anywhere from 15-25 minutes! Most panels last for an hour. I’d prefer the moderator, who sometimes picks who goes on the panel, to introduce each person with the reason they picked the person, one minute each, tops. I realize a lot of people speak on panels to get exposure for their company, but the best way to do this is to get into the meat of the panel topic and share great info.”  Scott Stratten.
  7. Keep the Conversation Moving.  “If you have prepared the panelists appropriately, and you kick off the discussion with a few good questions, the conversation will start to flow on its own. Encourage each panelist to comment on particular parts of other panelists’ statements. Be flexible about following the natural conversation path, as long as it is interesting and the audience is engaged. You may, however, need to interject a follow-up question here and there to keep the conversation moving at a brisk pace. Probe deeper, make bridges between ideas, present opposing views, catch contradictions, test the unsaid, shift gears, create transitions and intervene firmly and respectfully to keep everyone on track.”  Kristin Arnold.
  8. Microphones—Microphones can be a real pitfall for a panel. Panel members are most often not professional speakers, and usually a microphone intimidates them. If panelists don’t use the mic, they won’t be heard—which means the audience will become bored… Make sure you have at least one microphone per two panel members. Show panelists how to use it in advance. Encourage them to move it closer or take it in hand each time they speak. If they forget, stop them in their presentation to remind them. (Do not be afraid to interrupt panel speakers to correct logistical problems.) The audience will thank you for it.  Mary McGlynn.
  9. Periodically Poll the Audience.  “One fun improvisational tip is to leverage a yes or no topic. Ask the audience: ‘Let’s pause and see what our audience thinks of that. Raise your hand if you would have taken action. Great. Now raise your hand if you would have waited without taking action.’ That involves the audience, and gives you fodder to comment on the panelist’s story. ‘Wow, John, less than half of our audience would have taken action as you did. Tell us how you summoned the courage to do so.'”  Karen Hough.
  10. Don’t Forget Audience Q&A.  “My belief about panels is that the moderator can easily spend the entire time asking questions that she believes the audience cares about… or she can actually let the audience ask questions that it cares about.  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.”  Scott Kirsner.
  11. Know the Impact of Body Language.  “I’ve studied this a few times, when I moderate, the body language I give off will be echoed by the panelists. If I sit up straight, or if you fidget, they will follow, the same happens when you speak. Look at the panelist when you ask a question, then look at the audience (they will follow suit). If you look at the panelists after you’ve asked a question, they will instinctively look back at you, an odd site to the audience. Unless responding to another panelists, the panelist should be addressing the audience so keep your attention on the customer.”  Jeremiah Owyang
  12. Stand Up for the Audience. “Making panelists look smart does not mean letting them bull shitake the audience. My theory is that the moderator is called the moderator is because her role is to ensure that there is only a moderate level of bull shitake and sales pitches. A good moderator is the audience’s advocate for truth, insight, and brevity–any two will do. When a panelist makes a sales pitch or tells lies, you are morally obligated to smack him around in front of the audience.”  Guy Kawasaki.
  13. Make Sure Everyone Has a Chance to Talk. Pay attention to who is contributing and how long. Take active steps to balance this out. This can mean asking quieter panelists whether they have anything to add before you move on to another question, addressing new questions first to people who have spoken less, figuring out when quieter panelists are trying to interject and facilitating their interruption, specifying that you’d like someone to keep their answer or interjection brief (or to hold it entirely) for the sake of time, or cutting someone off if they’re taking over. I know it can feel rude to signal to a speaker that they’re talking too much, but it’s also rude to your other panelists and to your audience to let one or two people dominate the discussion. People committed their time to your event expecting a panel, not a speech. Stephanie Zvan.
  14. Prepare Your “Cutoff Phrases” Ahead of Time.  “Be prepared to cut off long-winded panel members or those who ramble off topic. Having some pre-planned cutoff phrases helps. For example, if someone goes off on a tangent that is not useful to the overall topic, you could interrupt and say, ‘You have an interesting point there, but we want to know more about ________.’ Likewise, if someone is dominating the discussion, watch the person’s natural breathing rhythm and then interject between breaths, ‘Thank you, Julie. Now let’s hear Bob’s perspective on this topic.’ It’s always best to ask the panel members what “cutoff phrases” they respond to. Tell them you will use this tactic for keeping the discussion focused and on time.” Angela DeFinis.
  15. Ask What If Questions.  “Moderators can push envelopes with ‘what if’ questions, taking panelists beyond their prepared remarks. ‘What if you had….started sooner or later? Not doubted yourself? Won the lottery? Had no customers? Kept your job? Could only use one hand? Were trying to do this in 1985? Heard about a better option?’ Plenty of room here to get creative.”  Denise Graveline.
  16. It’s All About the Audience.  “You must never, ever forget that they are the folks who (one way or another) paid to be there. If a panelist veers off-topic, or starts into a sales pitch, I am merciless. Absolutely merciless. Never be afraid to cut off windbags and quickly ask another panelist to take a different tack. Your audience will love you for it, and it is the single biggest source of positive reviews/comments I get on panels I moderate. You are not there to make friends with the panel. You may already be friends with the panel. I am not antagonistic, but I make it very clear to conversation dominators that off-topic excursions will be halted pretty quickly. Generally, the folks who are likely to do this are pretty self-aware and will quickly recognize that they are dominating and will back off, and the other panelists will also appreciate the gesture and do a better job of “moderating” themselves. Early in my career I would just let these people finish, until I realized that many of them had enormous breath control :). A firm, but polite interruption is just the ticket.”  Tom Webster.
  17. Don’t Offer Your Own Opinions.  “Sad, but true. The audience is there to see you moderate, not be a panelist. If you offer your own opinions, you look like you’re trying to hog time from the panelists. Do this only if your panel  consists entirely of unbelievable bores, and you can bring down the house with your impromptu comedy routines. And certainly, never offer your opinion or tell a panelist they’re stupid.  Let another panelist say it instead.”  Steven Robbins.
  18. Allow for Final Comments.  “Allow each panelist a minute or two to respond to a final ‘big picture’ question. Some options: ‘Are you optimistic about the future?’ Where do you think we will be in five years?’ ‘What one point or theme should we take from this conference?'”  Steve Abudato.
  19. Share a Recap.  “After an on stage discussion, it is really important to recap the key messages that were shared during the panel and what the big takeaways should be for audience members. This is ideally done at the end of your panel, but can also be done through some sort of recap after the event itself (I love to do blog posts as recaps of events).”  Rohit Bhargava
  20. Say Thank You.  “As soon as possible after the conclusion of the event, send thank you notes to the individual panelists, event coordinator, and others involved in planning. For the speakers, include feedback you received either informally from attendees, or that which is relayed to you by the program chair that has received the evaluation forms.”  Mitchell Friedman.

If you like these ideas, you might want to check out our video tips with a plethora of professional panel moderators over at our YouTube Channel.  But then again, you won’t want to miss my free online video training, either!  I hope this all helps you as you prepare to moderate a lively and informative panel discussion!

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

Related Links:

Top Ten Must-Read Blogs on Moderating a Panel Discussion

10 Ways Panel Moderators Can Manage Time Effectively During a Panel Discussion

Panel Formats of the Past and Improvements of Today

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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