A Panel Discussion Case Study: Strategic Meetings Management (SMM)

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We’ve gotten so many compliments on the SMM panel discussion at MPI’s World Education Forum, that I thought it would be useful to break the process down for any aspiring panel moderator.  So….here goes!


Step 1: Clarify the Starting Conditions.  When I was asked to moderate the panel, I had a conference call with the meeting organizers from the ITA Group.  Using the meeting planning checklist, we chit-chatted back and forth about the event, the panel session, title, expected audience, invited panelists, etc.  While ALL of this is important, the most critical piece of information is the session objectives.  The objectives are “true north” for me.  All things must be done to support that desired direction.  In this case, our objectives for this one-hour panel at the end of the convention day were:

  • To provide thought leadership about how to get to the next place in designing and implementing a regional/international/global SMMP project
  • To share at least 1-2 “gems” that they can take back to management to get the ball rolling

Interestingly enough, “Success will be gauged by providing high content in a conversational manner – and not the traditional panel style.  That people walk out thinking/saying, “That was GREAT!”  So we agreed in concept on the format and massaged it through the planning process (see Step 4 for the format design).

Step 2.  Select the Panelists.  Optimally, you want three, perhaps four panelists.  In this case, the planning team kept vacillating between two and three thought leaders in that space.  For scheduling reasons, we ended up having two panelists who have in-depth knowledge of the topic from two different viewpoints. This was fine as we knew there would be other seasoned practitioners in the audience that we could tap into.  Thank goodness both panelists showed up, or we would have been having an interview!

Step 3.  Prepare to Moderate.  Each planning team member submitted the questions they thought the audience would most likely ask – or, the questions they think the audience should ask!  I also did a little web research regarding the topic/most frequently asked questions.  We then narrowed down the list to ten questions, tweaked them a bit, tested them out with some “sample participants” – and then loaded them into a crowdsourcing software.  (I use sli.do, but more on that later).  Otherwise, I would have sequenced the questions for moderating/panelist discussion.  But that’s not how we wanted to roll!

BTW, there are a few more things to do in preparing to moderate.  We had a final conference call where we identified who would be the “primary” person to answer each specific question (just so the panelists don’t look at each other like a deer in the headlights!).  We created ONE slide to show the panelist’s names, position and Twitter handle and a promo video for the panel to get the word out.

Step 4.  Moderate the Panel.  I got there early to set up the A/V (microphones, Catchbox, sli.do questions and URL projected on to the main screen alternating with the sponsor opening slide – Go Visit Tampa Bay!) and the panelists arrived 30 minutes prior to the start time.  We reviewed the process flow and reinforced that this was meant to be a discussion with the audience.

Warm Up.  As people were walking in, I warmly greeted them and asked them to go to a short URL (e.g. sli.do/WEC16) using their smartphone.  I mentioned that we had pre-loaded the top ten questions and that they could “like” as many questions they wanted answered, or add their own!  This got things rolling even before the panel started.

Opening.  We opened the session with a few minutes from the sponsor (Go Visit Tampa Bay!!!) and then I launched into a couple of intriguing questions supplied by panelist, Debbie Crossling Barker:

  • Do you know how much the company spent on total meetings this past quarter?
  • Do you know the exact number of meetings you host every year?
  • How long would it take to compile information on the number of registrants you had at EVERY meeting you hosted last year?  Would it take longer than an hour?

[Note: We discussed whether we should use electronic polling using sli.do …or just make these rhetorical questions.  Because we had only an hour, this was more to tease the audience vs. actually getting to know the answers AND we wanted to them to focus on crowdsourcing the questions, we opted to keep it simple.]

I then stated the objectives and quickly introduced the panelists while they joined me on stage.  Rather than blab on about their credentials (which would take up half the time), I asked the participants to refer to the WEC meeting app for more information.

Newlywed Game.  Because SMM often strikes fear into a meeting planner’s heart, I asked the audience to discuss among themselves the one word they would use to characterize SMM – and asked the panelists to write their word on the hard poster board sitting by their chair.  I then debriefed the words from the audience using my Catchbox, the throwable microphone,  and there is always a chuckle! I then asked the panelists to reveal their word at the same time.  Drum roll, please!  The panelists always pick interesting words – Taya Paige said “flawsome” in that SMM has got some flaws, but is awesome overall!  How quirky is that?  Now we have their attention!

Crowdsourced Questions.  We’ve only spent five minutes on the opening, so now it’s time emphasize that this panel discussion is about them.  We are going to answer the questions they want answered, to share lessons learned and ideas, emphasizing that this is an audience discussion, not just a panel discussion.  I then repeat the directions on how to crowdsource the questions.  So now people start “liking” questions in earnest, and can see their votes going up and down. I give this about a minute to settle down, explaining that I will take the top voted on question, let a panelist respond, and then ask the audience for any follow up questions, ideas or best practices.

So we start with the item with the most votes. Fortunately, I have Kristina Kralikova from sli.do who managed the “presenter view” for me.  (Otherwise, I would manage what is displayed on the big screen using my mini-iPad!).  She highlighted each question that we were working on, and then “hid” the question once we moved on to the next.

[Note: Most of the time, the questions quite literally flow from one to the next.  You might have to make some kind of transition from one thought to the next, but it typically flows well.  In this case, the second most number of votes was to “share best practices.”  Duh!  That’s what the whole panel is about!  So, when it came to that question in the line-up, I suggested to the audience that we save this question for about 10 minutes to go….and then open the floor to best practices!  Worked like a charm….because I actually went to that question at minute 50 in the program!]

Wrap Up.  We wrapped up very quickly with a summarizing statement from me and then I went to each of the panelists to ask, “If there was one thing you would want our audience to remember or to do as a result of this panel discussion, what would it be?”  I then thanked the panelists and audience for their contributions, the sponsor for their support, and sent them to the reception.

Follow-Up.  You can always tell a great panel by the number of people who continue the conversation amongst themselves or with the panelists.  Even with alcohol looming, people still wanted to stay and talk long after the panel discussion was over!

So that’s a quick overview of ONE panel format and how it came about.  Hope this is a helpful case study for you to use in planning and moderating an upcoming panel discussion.

For more resources on how to make meetings, panels, and room sets better, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

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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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