The key to any great panel discussion is the quality and clarity of the panel questions. Depending on the panel discussion format, panel questions can come from the panel moderator, the audience, or as a follow-up question posed by the panel moderator, a panelist, or an audience member.
Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard), you’ll want to do a bit of research on the topic, the panelists, and the audience.
As you research the topic, talk to the panelists and connect with the audience (either through social media or a few sample interviews), you’ll start to compile a list of potential questions. At this point, don’t worry about the exact phrasing or quality of the questions. Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need – and make sure they cover the topical landscape.
When you are ready, pull out that long list of questions from your research. Ask the following questions:
Whittle your list of questions down to at least two main questions per panelist and keep a backup of ten or more questions to use if needed. Keep questions that will:
Deliver the biggest and broadest impact and value from the audience’s perspective
Leverage the panelist’s expertise and experiences in a useful way
Address an issue, challenge, or capture the interest of the audience
Start a deeper conversation or spark an interesting debate
Uncover something the audience can’t easily find on the internet
Provide valuable takeaway nuggets.
When finalizing your questions, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Use your valued resources from step 1 and ask them to take a look at your draft list of questions:
Typically, moderator-curated questions have a flow that moves from strategic to the more tactical:
The first question sets the tone for the panel, so you want to be thoughtful about how you start the questioning process. There are three schools of thought on the way you should start with moderator-curated questions:
Softie. Warm up the panelists with broad, easy questions so the panelists can settle in and relax. Ask for a definition, talk about the history of the topic, or why this topic is so interesting. Then raise the stakes, probing into more controversial areas.
Hardball. Start out with a strong, provocative question. For example, ask each panelist, in 30 seconds or less to offer a strong opinion on the topic.
Gauge the Room. When the audience’s skill level is not known, do some level-setting of the audience’s experience. For example, ask for a show of hands, “How many people have less than 2 years experience writing Java? Between 2-5 years? And those who think they should be on the panel rather than out in the audience?”
The first person to speak will also influence the tone of the panel, so consider carefully who you want to start with. Consider having the seating plan reflect your initial order.
Rephrase the questions more economically (the shorter, the better) in order to position the question for the panelist and audience and to focus them to keep the panelists on track. Your final litmus test for a good panel question is to filter it through the lens of the audience. Will they care? What will they do with the answer? For example, you can ask a panel question about “future trends” or you can ask about “future trends the audience should be aware of.” It’s a subtle nuance, but will help keep the focus of the panel on value to the audience (vs. what the panelist pundits care about!) When finalizing your questions, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Make sure you ask great questions that are on everyone’s mind.
You can write your questions down on 3×5 or 5×7 index cards (consider using a key-ring punched through the upper left-hand corner to keep the cards in order during the session) or use a tablet to scroll through the questions. You can also use these cards as prompts for your welcoming remarks, panelist introductions, and closing remarks. For a useful template for using index cards during panel presentations Click here.
Why go through all the hassle of curating some fabulous panel questions? Consider it to be an insurance policy. Sometimes, you won’t even need to use many of them because the conversation flows easily. Other times, you may have to use every single one of them during a rather fitful panel discussion. You just don’t know what you’ll find until you get there. So why not come prepared?
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.