How to Moderate an Impromptu Panel – with No Preparation!

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It happens. You’ve been asked to moderate a panel discussion and you don’t have access to the panelists beforehand. You’re not even sure who the panelists will be…or even what the focus of the panel should be!

This, my friends, is called a “dog’s breakfast.” And it happens, unfortunately, more often than it should. AND, it just happened to me! And what kills me about this is that I rant and rave about how to make panels more powerful by not waiting until the last minute. And here I was, waiting until the last minute. Even to the point where I didn’t know if a panelist was present when I introduced her!

I had to eat that piece of humble pie. The good news is that the panel was very well received – despite the challenges. Even though you may not be able to do the appropriate planning,

Here are a few things you can do when faced with an impromptu panel:

    • Research Panelist Bios. Ask the meeting organizer for the names and/or bios of the potential panelists. Check them out on LinkedIn to get a sense of what their contribution to the topic might be.
    • Focus the Topic. Typically, the chosen topic is too broad for a meaningful 45-60 minute discussion. So take the panel promotional information as well as the information you gleaned from your research and determine where you will focus the conversation.
    • Discover the Glue.  The panelists should have something in common about the topic.  Figure out what the commonality is – that’s the “glue” that will hold your impromptu panel together.  Even better if you believe there is a bit of controversy about the topic and/or the panelists hold different opinions about the topic!
    • Formulate an Intriguing Question. For each panelist, think of one or two intriguing questions to ask – and write them down. Keep their names, job titles and questions with you so you can refer to them quickly. Try these research tips to draw up provocative questions:

  • Say Hi. If you get a chance to meet them before the panel starts, you’re off to a good start!   Thank them profusely for agreeing to be on the panel and send lots of positive energy that you are really excited to moderate the panel.  You might be really upset or distracted, but don’t let that show. They need to know that the panel is going to rock and that you are in control.  Confirm the way they pronounce their names and give them a quick overview of how you will run the program. Share any ground rules you have in mind (such as keep it conversational).  Suggest that they bring 3 key points they want to make and pepper them through the conversation.
  • Introduce the Panelists. I’m not a big fan of lengthy introductions, and when you are doing an impromptu panel, I suggest you “introduce” the panelists by sharing their names, titles, and organization. Once they are all on stage, I ask each panelist to briefly –about a minute – to share their perspective about the topic.
  • Ask Questions. Depending on the topic and/or audience, you can then launch into your questions… or let the audience ask the questions!

And now you’re rockin’ & rollin’ – ready for a brilliant conversation! Next time you don’t have the time to prepare effectively for your next panel discussion, try some of these creative ways to act quickly on your feet to facilitate a fabulous panel discussion.


For quick tips and techniques from industry professionals to help you moderate a lively and informative panel discussion at your next meeting, conference or convention, visit the Powerful Panels YouTube playlist, “Powerful Panel Discussion Tips.”

Related Articles:

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3 Popular Panel Discussion Formats

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator, and high stakes meeting facilitator shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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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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