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March 30, 2014

Today’s audiences are demanding more engagement and interaction – especially during the panel discussion format.  Nothing will piss them off more than lengthy introductions, followed by panelist presentations and then “Oops!  Sorry, we don’t have time for audience Q&A.”

Rather than waiting for the end to engage the audience, why not engage them beforehand, as they walk into the room, at the beginning and throughout the entire panel session?

Here are a few ideas:

Engage Beforehand.  Ask the attendees to submit questions and comments about the topic even before the session starts through a blog, web-based survey and social media hashtags etc.

As They Walk Into the Room.  Make the room more engaging as they walk through the door – they know that they will be in for a fabulous panel discussion by:

  • Tables.  Have round tables that encourage discussion between attendees.
  • Chairs.  If you have to do theater-style seating, consider audience-centered seating arrangements.  Set the first row of chairs so they are close to the panelists. Face each chair directly toward the center of the panel and make sure each chair has an unobstructed view.
  • Barriers.  Get rid of the traditional skirted table and lectern that separates the panel from the audience.
  • Lighting.  Keep the house lights up (at least a half to two-thirds).
  • Posters.  Post topic-related intriguing pictures, icons, phrases, quotations, charts etc. on the walls around the room.  Tape a welcome sign on the door.
  • Music.  Have some upbeat, popular, age-appropriate music playing as they enter.  (Don’t forget to license the use of that music through ASCAP or BMI.
  • Slideshow.  Have a continuous looping file with the panelist bios and interesting tidbits of information about the topic including the Twitter hashtag for the event.
  • Question Cards.  Pass out pre-printed question forms or note cards to the audience as they walk in or have one placed on each chair as they enter the room.

Mingle.  Encourage the panelists to mingle with the audience and chat with as many friendly faces as they can.  Shake people’s hands.  Thank them for coming.  Get to know their names and why they are interested in the topic so that you can use them use this information later on.  Have the panelists sit in the audience until the panel actually starts.

At the Beginning

  • Show You Care.  In your introductory comments, show how much you care about the audience’s input through their discussions, comments and questions.
  • Text or Tweet.  Encourage the audience to text or tweet (or some other social media platform) with the appropriate hash tag or cell phone number.  Watch the feed while the panel is going on, check the feed periodically, or ask a support staff to watch the feed for you and alert you for themes etc.
  • Take a Poll.  At the beginning and periodically through the session, gauge the room with a quick survey or quiz using a show of hands, thumbs up or down, stand up, make a noise, shout out, color-coded response cards, waive a flag, etc.  You can also use audience response systems such as or
  • Ask a Provocative Question. Start the conversation with the audience, asking them an interesting, intriguing or provocative question to stimulate their thinking.  As them what they want to know from the panelists and engage in a short dialogue with the audience first.

During the Panel Session

  • Walk About.  Walk into the audience, Oprah-style to get their ideas and opinions on the topic.
  • Small Groups.  After the panelists have commented on a particular topic, kick the question to the audience for a 2-5 minute peer-to-peer discussion.  Then debrief these micro-discussions with the larger group by taking 2-3 comments as well as 1-2 questions for the panelists.
  • Hot Seat.  Ask for a volunteer from the audience who wants some feedback from the panelists.  Allow them to briefly state their situation/what they want help on, and then let the panel provide advice a la American Idol!
  •  Q&A.  Make sure you save enough time for a Q&A session at the end – and use their questions solicited live from a queue, runners going around the room or Oprah-style; or screened via question cards, text, sms, etc.
  •  Nudge Your Neighbor.  Periodically, or toward the conclusion, ask the audience to talk with the person sitting to the left or right about the most meaningful point(s) made so far that are most applicable to their situation and how they will apply the information.   Debrief the lessons learned and take-aways with the larger audience.
  •  Summarize.  At the conclusion, the moderator traditionally summarizes the key points.  Instead, ask the audience to shout out the key points.

Professional trainer Bob Pike says, “Never do for the audience that which they can do themselves.”  Think through all the elements of the panel and ask, “ Do I really have to do this?  Is there a way I can get an audience member or two/three/four involved?”

What other ways do you engage and interact with the audience during a panel discussion?

To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.

Related Articles:

Spice Up Your Next Panel Discussion with the Newlywed Game!

How and When to Manage Audience Q&A

How to Keep the Audience Engaged During A Panel with One Simple Trick

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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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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