Avoid the Hot Potato or Ping Pong Effect During Panel Discussions

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I recently attended a panel discussion at a large conference where the moderator started the session with a hot potato and shifted to ping pong.  The result?  No real conversation ensued because the moderator was too controlling.  He never gave permission to the panelists to dialogue among themselves.  Instead, everything had to be funneled through him.

So, you may ask, what IS the Hot Potato and the Ping Pong?  Here are my definitions:

The Hot Potato is when the moderator asks the same question to each of the panelists. (The moderator asks Question #1 to Panelist A who answers the question, then the moderator asks the same question to Panelist B who answers the question, and then to Panelist C, etc. until each panelist has weighed in.)  I always feel sorry for Panelist Z who is usually robbed of anything new to say – or time has run out.

The Ping Pong is when the moderator asks a different question to each of the panelists, but it always comes back to the moderator to ask more questions. (The moderator asks Question #1 to Panelist A who answers the question, then the moderator asks a different question to Panelist B who answers the question, and then to Panelist C, etc.)

Both of these techniques are useful – until they become the only questioning techniques the moderator has in her tool bag.  For example, The Ping Pong is an effective technique to start the conversation.  You have to start somewhere, so have a unique, separate question for each panelist, tailored to highlight some specific aspect of the panelist’s background.  Just make sure you have the same level question (softie or hardball, but not both) for everyone else on the panel.  You don’t want to seem unfair by giving a softie question to your favorite panelist and then going in for the kill with a hardball question to a different panelist.

The Hot Potato is a good technique to close the session and get a sound bite or summary idea from each panelist.  For example, “In 30 seconds or less, what’s the one thing you think our audience should do as a result of being at this panel session today?”

Although both of these techniques have their strengths, Ping Pong and Hot Potato are NOT effective as the only two questioning techniques a moderator should use.  Both of these techniques keep the focal point on the moderator when it should be on the conversation between the panelists.  Use them sparingly and purposefully and you’ll be fine!

What questioning techniques do you use to get the conversation going?

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

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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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