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Insert a Panel Discussion within a Speech

Many years ago, I was gobsmacked to see CPAE Speaker Hall of Famer Joe Calloway insert a panel discussion in his speech! Wait; What? You can do THAT in a presentation?

Indeed, you can! Embedding a panel discussion into a presentation or speech can be an effective way to diversify the content, introduce multiple viewpoints, and dynamically engage the audience. It works well with large group keynotes as well as smaller, more intimate presentations.

Inserting a panel discussion into a speech is no easy feat. It takes more time to organize and prepare for the panel, there is more risk involved (who knows what the panelists will actually say….), and you may think it takes time away from delivering key content.

True. It WILL take time to organize and prepare (not just your role, but with the organizer and the panelists). As you prepare your panelists, the risk is reduced, and you are using the time wisely as the panelists are reinforcing YOUR key points – especially when you masterfully point out and punctuate an important bit!

To find out the inside scoop on the why, how, and when to insert a panel discussion into a speech, I interviewed Calloway for my Powerful Panels podcast. After all, he has done “a couple of hundred of them” (OMG – he is the MASTER of this technique!). Typically, in a one-hour speech, he would insert the panel after 20-30 minutes, have a 15-minute panel, and then conclude his speech in the last 15 minutes. You can watch/listen to the podcast here.

According to Calloway, there is a HUGE bonus when inserting a panel discussion into a speech:

“I can stand in front of an audience and say, ‘I’m not really going to give you a lot of my opinion. I’m a reporter. I’m going to talk to you about what works. I’m going give you concrete examples of companies.’ But that was still me telling them, ‘Here’s an example of what works’. Now I’ve got their colleagues saying, ‘Here’s what works. Here are my results. These are three people that do what all of you do, and they are all really successful. And here’s how they do it.’ So it’s not just me saying it. I’ve got these three other people that are backing me up. And if they were good at what they do, (and they always were), then I could easily tie in my perspective after the panel was over….It gives my message more credibility.”

Joe Calloway

How to Insert a Panel Discussion into a Speech

To recap the high points of the podcast, here are some tips on how to incorporate such a segment effectively, and some advice on when it might be appropriate:

  1. Define Clear Objectives: Before including a panel, have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. Clarify the one key theme (you don’t have time for more than one!) that will provide more value to the audience. Please don’t just do a panel because it might be kinda cool to do!
  2. Choose the Right Panelists:
    • Pick people who are going to be comfortable speaking on the stage and share great insights. (The meeting organizer can help you with this). If they appear to be nervous, Calloway would say, “Look, what you’re going be doing is no different than what you and I are doing on the phone right now. There are no right or wrong, answers. This is just kicking stuff around.”
    • Two specific examples Calloway shared were with the organization’s top performers to share best practices and top customer service representatives who shared their perspectives about how their work is important and why they care about their customers.
  3. Do Your Research. Calloway says, “For me to carry on an intelligent conversation with them, I had to understand what they did, what the company did, and what you are trying to achieve with the event. And how can what I do, including the panel, help advance that? How can you walk away from this saying ‘Oh, my gosh! What just happened was so helpful and that panel was crazy, helpful.'”
  4. Prepare Your Panelists: Provide them with the context of the presentation and what their contribution should focus on. Allow them to prepare so they can bring valuable insights to the discussion.
    • Connect with each panelist before the event. Calloway says to them, “Here’s what we are going to talk about. The ground rules are that this truly is, gonna be a conversation. I am going to throw out a question to each of you – so be ready to respond to it. I will very likely interrupt you, one of you, at least at some point. ‘I’ll say, Kristin, wait, Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Just a second! Hang on because you just said something that I think is crazy important. Say that again to everybody, and go a little bit deeper on that.'” Calloway continues to explain that “part of the reason I’m going to interrupt you is because I want you to feel free to interrupt each other. When a colleague is making a point, it may jog an idea in your mind, and I want you to feel free to interrupt and say ‘hey!'”
    • Give each panelist at least one area they should take a deeper diver into
  5. Prepare the Stage
    • Have the appropriate number of chairs (Calloway prefers bar stools) already on the stage before the speech begins.
    • Have the panelists sit close to the stage so it doesn’t take very long to have them join you on the stage.
    • If appropriate, make sure there are handheld microphones on the chairs OR have the panelists bring the handhelds up with them OR have them ready to go with a lavaliere microphone.
  6. Transition to the Panel
    • Ensure the panel discussion flows logically from your presentation. Calloway likes to say “I’ve been talking about these ideas and yet there are a lot of people in this room that are really good at what you do. I thought it would be really useful and interesting to bring three of your colleagues up on stage with me to kick around some of these ideas as they work in your real world. So let’s let your best tell me and each other what they’re doing that works and see how it fits with what I’ve been telling you.”
    • Invite them to the stage by naming the panelists. “Would you three come on up? Give them a hand everybody.” Lead the applause while the panelists come up to the stage.
    • Even though they are probably well known to the audience, do a quick 15-second intro of each panelist. (If using slides in your speech, have a slide with all the panelists in the order in which they are seated.)
  7. Moderate Effectively
    • This is much more fast-paced, so you have to come out strong (and the panelists are ready for this!). Calloway likes to start by throwing a question out there and saying, “Whoever wants it, take it!” Calloway continues, “Usually one of them would. And if they didn’t I’d say, ‘Well, okay, I’m gonna make you talk! Jimmy, what do you think about that because I know you’re good at this. So what’s your take on it? How does it work?”
    • As the facilitator, keep the discussion on track, manage time efficiently, and ensure all panelists get the opportunity to speak.
  8. Conclude the Panel
    • After the last answer, thank the panelist then turn to the audience and ask, “What do you think? Did you get some useful ideas?” Thank the panel members (because people love cheering for their own!) and wave your hands to signal that they should go back into the audience. Watch how everybody’s patting them on the back and hugging them!
  9. Seamlessly Flow into Your Speech. Calloway would then make an observation such as “I wanna go back to something, Bob said, because it’s a great lead into what I was going to talk about next with you. Bob, said….”. And then finish up your speech.

When to Include a Panel Discussion in a Speech

Calloway coaches us to “Use your imagination with these things. You can come up with different approaches to it.” Here are some ideas when you might consider inserting a quick panel into your speech:

  • Complex Topics: When the speech topic is complex and could benefit from some practitioners to deepen audience understanding
  • Best Practices: When the organization has some top performers who they would love to clone
  • Point of Focus: When you want to take a deep dive on a singular point of focus
  • Change Management. When an organization is facing significant change, explore different points of view and why this change matters

Where to Start?

Let’s say you want to do a panel in the middle of a speech. Calloway recommends that you “Try it with a good client that you’ve already worked with. They know you and trust you. You suggest, ‘Hey, for this year’s event, I want to try something different.’ Try this out on safe, known territory where you know them and they know you. The trust level is high. You’ll be great.”

Calloway summarizes his experience of using panels in a speech by saying, “Putting a panel discussion in a speech makes it playful. Have fun – but it’s also serious business. It’s all about the value of this segment and it has to be real, tangible, helpful information they can’t get elsewhere.”

Related Articles

How to Structure a Panel Discussion

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.

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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