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A panel moderator just asked my advice on what questions to ask for a panel being held after dinner to support a not-for-profit foundation.

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As we were talking this through, I realized the issue was much broader than just finding good questions. Once I teased out that this panel discussion was being held after dinner, I had to step back and reimagine the panel discussion as an after-dinner event.

Why? Because 1) the audience is probably pretty tired – they have had a full day!, 2) They are also pretty full from eating, and 3) They may be a little buzzed from an alcoholic beverage (or two). As a result, you have to make the panel much more exciting and engaging. More like entertainment – which is definitely NOT the energy level of a traditional panel – no less the lively and informative panels that I encourage.

After-dinner panels need to be more edutaining – educational/informational/inspirational AND entertaining.

Here are best practices to ensure your after-dinner panel discussion is much more lively, informative, and engaging:

Panel Format

  • Keep it short. Plan for a shorter panel to maintain attention. People tend to have lower energy levels and attention spans after dinner, so I would recommend a panel to be 30-45 minutes tops.
  • Select Lively Panelists. It’s even more important to choose dynamic and engaging panelists who can energize the room. Make sure you have a good mix of diverse perspectives and lively personalities to keep interest levels high.
  • Interactive Format. Plan for a highly interactive format. My favorite is to mimic a TV talk show or game show to spice it up. Consider some different polling techniques over the boring “raise your hand” option.
  • Start Strong: Start with a high-energy opening, use humor where appropriate, and actively engage with both the panelists and the audience to maintain energy.
  • Storytelling: Encourage panelists to share interesting and intriguing stories and experiences rather than just facts or opinions. Stories resonate more strongly with audiences, especially in a more relaxed post-dinner atmosphere.
  • Upbeat Moderation: Yes, you need a skilled moderator who can keep the conversation lively, manage time effectively, and ensure audience questions are addressed. For after-dinner panel discussions, you also need a moderator who can bring the energy to the room. The audience will only rise to the level of the energy the moderator brings.

Logistics and Comfort Level

  • Stage Setup. Opt for an informal setup that encourages interaction. A circular or semi-circular seating arrangement can feel more inclusive and encourage participation.
  • Comfortable Seating: After a meal, comfort becomes even more critical. Ensure that the audience is in comfortable (enough!) chairs so they can be attentive over the session’s duration.
  • Physical Environment: Ensure the room is well-lit and at a comfortable temperature. A dim or overly warm room encourages post-meal drowsiness!
  • Sound. Make sure the audio system is working properly and that the audience can hear the moderator and panelists. If they can’t hear the discussion, you’ll lose them!

Incorporating these ideas into the planning for your after-dinner panel discussion will ensure your panel is the hit of the dinner!

Next week: We’ll talk about what to do when you can’t figure out what questions to ask!

Related Articles

How to Structure a Panel Discussion

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How to Moderate a Panel


For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

Kristin Arnold

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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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