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I have watched several panels who declare themselves as an “UnPanel” – a panel of 4-5 people without a moderator.  And it always ends up with one of the panelists serving as the de facto moderator.  After all, how do you keep a handful of people focused?

In fact, several years ago, I witnessed such a panel at the National Speakers Association.  Five Hall of Fame Speakers decided to have a live, unplugged conversation for an hour.  It really wasn’t going anywhere until Randy Pennington started exerting a little rudder control over the conversation.  Thank goodness – although it reaffirmed my belief that a panel needs a moderator!

Fast forward to last month where I watched Randy and two others from that earlier panel (Scott McKain and Larry Winget) on another panel – but this time, it was truly a panel without a moderator.  It was informative, fun, and a seamless conversation.

So I called Randy to find out the difference between the two panels:

  1. Limit to Three People.  It’s easier to have an unpanel with only three people.  Five was too many for everyone to insert their ideas in a shorter period of time without a moderator..
  2. High Degree of Familiarity with each others’ styles and content. Although they are all good friends, a high degree of collegiality doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome.  From that first panel, they have done several more programs and panels together so at this point, they understand each others’ strengths.  They know the rhythm of starting and stopping, interjecting and withdrawing, so it becomes a fluid dance between the panelists.
  3. Designate Roles to Play.  Just like any good reality TV show, the panelists need to know their roles.  In this case, Larry’s the “provocateur,” Scott’s the “high concept” guy, and Randy talks about how to “make it work.”  They all switched roles as needed, but knowing the basics provided structure.
  4. Have a Strategy/Structure.  The three of them met the night before to talk about the key points they wanted to drive home and how they were going to proceed through the session.  In this case, they had a handout to use as a backup plan – just in case the audience questions didn’t cover the key points.  They also confabbed out in the hall right before the session started to weave any “in the moment” tie-ins that they wanted to emphasize.
  5. Ebb and Flow.  They resisted thinking about this as a “traditional panel.”  Even though there were three chairs positioned on a stage at the front of the room, I don’t think I saw all three of them sit down at the same time.  There was usually one person center stage speaking with the other two in the wings.  Then that speaker would turn it over or someone would walk up and then the speaker would recede to the side.  Because of that familiarity with each other, they were able to understand intuitively when they needed to move on or balance the airtime amongst each other.

An unpanel discussion is not impossible but does require a certain amount of chemistry between the panelists.  And if you do go this route, I hope you stay friends!

Related Articles:

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KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF | Master, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out her free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Photo source: Gwen Henson

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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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