when a panelist cannot answer your question
When a Panelist Cannot Answer Your Question
June 4, 2024
get people to sit in the front row

It happens ALL THE TIME – the dreaded front-row buffer zone.

As your attendees walk into the meeting room, they settle somewhere in the middle, back rows, or even the ends of the rows of chairs (That’s my personal favorite – especially if I might have to make a quick exit).

NO ONE typically sits in the front row..which is a problem. The front row is a barren wasteland; yet another barrier between the panel and the audience (the dreaded long draped table is the other barrier).

A good friend and speaker colleague, Marilyn Sherman hypothesizes that the reason why people don’t sit in the front row is, “People have such a fear of being called on, called out, or put on the spot. They’d rather blend in with the crowd.” And Sherman should know. She talks about the benefits of living life in the front row!

My fellow panel moderator, Scott Kirsner, calls this the “Front Row Buffer Zone.” And it doesn’t have to happen. Kirsner says, “Do whatever you can do to get people to sit in that front row. Your event staff, and other speakers. Sometimes, I have used prizes, free books, a bag of candy, a tchotchke to sit in the front row. And then when you start the session or the day, remind people that you want the “A” students sitting in the front row – or maybe that you are going to bribe them to sit there.”

I have also used a few other techniques, so here’s my list of ways to get people to sit in the front row of a panel discussion:

How to Get People to Sit in the Front Row of a Panel Discussion

  • As the panel moderator, ask people to sit in the front row
  • As people come in, point to the empty chairs at the front of the room and say, “We have room up front!” (I usually add some kind of quip such as “I don’t bite!,” “I took a shower today!,” “I won’t make you hold hands and sing Kumbya if you sit up front!”
  • Have staff members or other speakers be “greeters” (like in church) to gently suggest that people sit in the front row
  • Have the panelists in the front of the room chatting with participants as they enter – and gently suggest they sit in the front so they can see their smiling faces!
  • Ask a few of the “heavy hitters” in the organization to sit in the front. Better yet, ask them to bring a colleague or junior/new person to join them
  • Have the leaders of the organization set an example and sit in the front row
  • Offer a reward (or “bribe”) to induce them to sit in front
  • Don’t HAVE a front row! Consider a fishbowl or panel in the round seating arrangement

Finally, you may not be able to get people to sit in the front row of the panel discussion because you don’t have a lot of people attending the discussion. Why is that? Perhaps the room is bigger than the expected number of people. Or your topic just isn’t interesting or relevant. Or the panelists’ names/bios are not a draw.

Whatever the reason, the meeting organizer and moderator should devise a strategy to ensure people to sit in the front row so that the dreaded “front row buffer zone” doesn’t happen during your panel discussion.

Related Articles

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10 Common Mistakes Panel Moderators Make

How to Moderate a Panel


For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and 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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