A panel discussion is a specific format used in a meeting, conference, or convention. It is a live (or recorded), in-person, virtual, or “hybrid” discussion about a specific topic amongst a selected group of experts who share differing perspectives in front of an in-person, virtual, or geographically dispersed audience.
The main purpose of a panel discussion is for the panelists to share their wisdom and provide insights to create real value and takeaways for the audience. It’s an “up close and personal” discussion among the panelists and with the audience. It’s the part of the story that you can’t find on Google, YouTube, or TED.
So let’s take a deeper dive into the panel discussion definition and what it IS and is NOT:
A panel discussion IS:
A panel discussion is typically facilitated by a skilled “panel moderator” who guides the panel and the audience through a lively conversation about a specific topic.
The panelists are a group of people typically 3-4 experts or practitioners in the field, who share facts, offer opinions, and respond to audience questions either through questions curated by the moderator or taken from the audience directly.
The panel session typically lasts for 60-90 minutes.
It can be produced in front of a live audience or recorded for replay, shown in-person or remotely, with the moderator and panelists in one location or attending remotely, and with the audience in one physical room, or “virtually” (otherwise known as “geographically dispersed”).
A panel is NOT:
A set of presentations, one after another. The panel format allows for a brief introduction and then a discussion between the panelists and the audience. If the majority of the panel agenda is centered around presenting information, then just give each panelist a speaking slot with a Q&A after each speaker.
A one-on-one interview with each panelist. Many untrained moderators simply ask questions of each panelist, one after another, rather than build the dialogue into a conversation. Unless you create interplay among the panelists, create a format that includes an “up close and personal” interview with each speaker.
Just Q&A from the audience. When the focus is completely on answering the audience’s questions, you have a forum or “town hall” meeting.
Not that any of these formats are bad; they are simply different than a panel. Just call it as you see it, be it a panel, presentation, interview, or forum.
Use a panel discussion when you believe the group of panelists will generate something more interesting than any one individual panel member could generate on his/her own.
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.
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.