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I simply don’t understand the thinking of putting a dozen panelists in a panel discussion format that will last an hour or so.

Do the math: five mins for the intro and five minutes for the summary.  That leaves 50 minutes divided by 12.  This gives each panelist about 4 minutes of airtime – as long as the moderator doesn’t say anything and the audience doesn’t ask any questions!  Bottom line: 12 is too many.

But what’s the optimal number of panelists in a panel discussion?

One person makes for an interview – not a panel.  A completely legitimate format, but it’s not a panel.

Two people make for an intimate conversation, especially if they have differing (and even opposing) viewpoints. It can appear to be a debate (pro/con, he said/she said, point/counterpoint) or just a fireside chat.

Personally, I like three people with differing viewpoints.  Three just seems to be a magical number.  It brings a conversational tone to the stage.

However, one person might drop out unexpectedly, at the last minute and for whatever reason.  So inviting four panelists to participate is a smart move – just in case.

But five?  Five is bordering on the “too many” realm.  Let’s do the math again, but let’s make sure the audience has some time to ask questions:

Five minutes for the introduction, a minimum of 15 minutes for Q&A and five minutes to summarize – which leaves a paltry 35 minutes for panelist discussion.  That’s no more than 7 minutes per panelist on a good day.  Borderline too many.  It’s doable – especially if need a broad range of representation, but it’s not optimum.

Six panelists?  It just doesn’t make sense from the panelist’s point of view (is this really worth my time going to this?  Preparing for it?) and the audience’s point of view (why were they there if they didn’t say anything?).  And, from the moderator’s point of view, it is more challenging to firmly and respectfully intervene as the group gets larger.

So do us all a favor, and pick a decent number of panelists with diverse viewpoints so there can be meaningful conversation among the panelists and with the audience.

Related Articles:

How to Organize a Panel Discussion

Panel Moderator Checklist for Meeting with Panelists Prior to Panel Discussions

3 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

How to Get Your Panel Discussion Proposal Approved by Conference Organizers

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