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Ed Bernacki, Founder of The Idea Factory, shared this unique panel format he calls The Hypothetical Panel Discussion Format. Here is his explanation of the format from his ebook Seven Rules For Designing More Innovative Conferences.

In the 1990s, Australian Geoffrey Robertson started a television program called ‘Hypotheticals.’ Each program hosted a panel discussion on meaningful topics for the viewers. The objective was to host a panel of experts that is structured in terms of answering questions specific to the person’s expertise. This model has been used by many conferences in Australia.

For example, I was on such a panel for a conference on entrepreneurship hosted by the Australian Stock Exchange.


The contribution that I was expected to make from The Idea Factory was to talk about ideas that people create to start a business. The host concluded my section with this comment: “Now that we have an idea for the business that seems sound, how do we take that idea and turn it into a business?” The next speaker talked about turning the idea into a business plan. Other speakers talked about protecting the idea legally, licensing or franchising the idea, financing the business, and then finally selling the business.

In terms of converting this to a conference setting, think of your stage as the set for a television program. The objective is to create an entertaining event that tests the knowledge of the speakers to come up with solutions to the challenges raised by the panel moderator.

For example, if the theme was to develop a coaching service for executives within an organization, the moderator would define several scenarios that become the platform for a conversation.

  • The moderator could then ask specific speakers a question based on their expertise such as, “Let’s start with the situation of a company starting a new coaching program. What would you recommend for starting a pilot program?”
  • With the discussion of this start-up phase, the moderator would then go to the next speaker and ask about turning the pilot into a full company-wide program.
  • The moderator could then move to a different scenario such as: “Let’s address the issue of coaching different types of people. Who benefits the most from coaching programs?”
  • The final role of the moderator is to summarize the many ideas and recommendations given by the panel and then to seek questions from the audience based on what they just heard. Often questions will be targeted at a specific panel member.

The moderator must have a depth of knowledge of the subject and they must prepare a series of insightful questions that will lead to discussions that use the expertise of the panel.

The benefit of the Hypothetical is that it goes into depth. The traditional question-and-answer panel session leaves the ‘questioning’ to the audience. The Hypothetical adds structure to the discussion and the result is often much more powerful.

Reprinted with permission.

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To order your copy of The Powerful Panelist: Everything You Need to Know to be a Capable and Confident Panelist in a Panel Discussion visit this link.

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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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