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I recently attended a virtual panel discussion that went a bit sideways right out of the gate.  Rather than use the “waiting room” feature and have all of us enter the virtual room at once, many of us meandered in a few minutes beforehand as well as a few minutes after the official start time.

What greeted us was nothing.  No video, no audio, nothing. Well, that’s awkward.  I started to wonder, “Am I in the right room? Do I have the right time?” So weird.

Then, at the top of the hour, the moderator comes into the room, turns on her microphone and web camera, says a few words under her breath that I am pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to hear, and welcomed the audience to the panel discussion.  Still awkward.

To top it off, she said, “We’re going to wait a few minutes until the rest of the folks get here” and then goes silent again.  Double awkward.

So why did I bother showing up on time?

When I enter a physical room in the face-to-face world, I expect a bit of mingling before the show starts.  The same holds true during a virtual panel discussion.

4 Ideas to Engage the Audience Right Before the Virtual Panel Starts:

  1. Waiting Room.  At some conferences, the doors open at a precise time, people rush in to take their seats, and the show starts.  By enabling the waiting room function, you can by-pass the mingling and just start the virtual panel discussion.  Easy-peasy.
  2. Music.  Play music in the background  – perhaps a song loosely related to the topic!
  3. Visual.  Display a slide that has the title of the panel discussion along with the date and time.  If there is room, add names and photos of the panel moderator and panelists.  If you have some sponsors you want to recognize or other information, consider a looping slideshow of a few slides.
  4. Mingle.  As the panel moderator, “virtually mingle” with the audience by recognizing people as they enter the room:
    • If their camera is “on,” look straight into your camera and welcome them by name.  Notice something in the visual frame that is interesting (e.g. their virtual background or the impressive set of books behind them).
    • If the group is small, start a conversation with a few of the participants, just like you would in the face-to-face environment.
    • Use the chatbox to engage the audience by asking them to:
      • Share their name, location, and one other pertinent item such as job title/function. Welcome them by name.  Comment on the names you recognize, the diversity of locations, functions you see, etc.
      • Ask an intriguing question related to the panel topic.  Verbally encourage them to answer the question in the chatbox.  Comment as the answers come rolling in.
      • Poll the audience.  Rather than using the polling functionality, show a slide with three or four options and ask them to answer in the chatbox: Is it A, B, C, or D?  For example, you could ask about the audience’s familiarity with the topic: A – Not much, B – A bit, C – A lot, or D – I should be a panelist!

Set the appropriate tone for your virtual panel discussion by intentionally thinking through the audience experience even before the panel actually starts.

For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.

Related Articles:

How to Moderate a Virtual Panel Discussion

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions

Photo by Christina @


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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