Now that you’ve said “Yes! I’ll moderate that upcoming panel,” you may be wondering how to structure a panel discussion that will be heralded as the best part of the event! So let’s start with the basic framework of a panel:
The typical panel consists of seven tasks that are performed in the following order:
The panel moderator may opt to do all seven tasks, omit some, combine a few, or design a unique format to achieve the overall desired results.
A great panel moderator will spend quite a bit of time thinking about the topic, the objectives, the audience, and the promise made in the marketing materials. They consider the venue, the theme, the tone, and the duration of the event. They will also research the diverse backgrounds and points of view that each panelist brings to the table. It is only after this investigative work is done that the panel moderator contemplates how to structure a panel discussion.
While the traditional flow of the seven tasks is helpful, I prefer to think of the tasks in structured “segments” or “chunks.” This provides a solid framework to keep the panel on track. For example, for a 30-60 minute panel, there are four common ways to structure a panel discussion:
2. Q&A Style. A 2-5 minute introduction of the topic and panelists, 25 minutes of curated questions from the moderator, 25 minutes of audience questions ending with a summary, and thanks.
3. Initial Remarks Style. A 2-5 minute introduction of the topic with each panelist taking five minutes to introduce themselves and their perspectives on the topic. Then 20 minutes of curated questions from the moderator, 10-15 minutes of Q&A with the audience ending with a summary and thanks.
4. Presentation Style. A 2-5 minute introduction of the topic and panelists. Each panelist has 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted sharing of his or her perspective on the topic, 5-10 minutes of Q&A ending with a summary and thanks.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to these four traditional formats. You can omit, combine, or place it before or after the event! For example, if you have a 30-minute live panel, you won’t want to spend a ton of time on the welcome, intros, and wrap-up so you can move quickly into the conversation. Rather than reading the lengthy bios, you simply remind the audience that the bios are in the meeting materials. Perhaps you omit the audience Q&A portion? Or solicit questions from audience members prior to the event? Or while the panel is in session, take questions from the audience electronically and promise to respond to them in the follow-up correspondence.
But let’s say you have 90 minutes – which is quite a bit more time and allows more in-depth conversations, audience interaction, and time to process the information with their peers. Perhaps you put people in small groups or breakout rooms to discuss the questions they have first and use those as a springboard for the panel discussion? Or provide insight and humor as you introduce the panelist? Allow time for initial remarks by the panelists? Or recap the discussion with the audience debriefing their takeaways?
Consider also the flow from one segment to another. Do they flow naturally or will you need to create some transitions between segments?
And, I try to keep block them into 8-10 minute segments or even shorter (6-8) for virtual panels. Why? Because audiences have the attention span of a goldfish and you want to keep them engaged for the entire panel discussion!
These are all questions about the structure, flow, and timing of the panel discussion. Which is a tad bit different than the format.
Consider the structure to be the essential framework of the panel discussion, whereas the panel discussion format gives it life and color. The format, just like the formatting of a book (or this blog post!) makes it interesting and lively, the same thing holds true for a great panel.
Formats come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, using the theme or location of the conference, the topic of the panel, or the activities within each segment. The world is your oyster and you can pick and choose what will create an interesting discussion. [Spoiler: To make your life easier, I wrote a book on 123 different ideas you can choose from!]
Oddly enough, I find the difference between structure and format in a panel discussion is much like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? Well, it depends on all that thinking that goes on in the planning phase. Sometimes a creative idea for the format will burst forth, and other times the time, layout, logistics constraints will dictate the structure. But they do go hand in hand, like peas and carrots. (I once saw a colleague moderate a panel discussion that used the movie Forrest Gump as the theme and the format grew from there – complete with costumes!)
Kristin Arnold is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out these additional resources for more information on how to structure a panel discussion at meetings, conferences, and conventions.