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October 15, 2015

One of the most important tasks for a meeting organizer and panel moderator to do is to create an appropriate structure and panel discussion formats. What’s the difference?  Consider the structure to be the essential framework of the panel discussion, (the tasks, the flow, and the timing) whereas the format gives it the shape, color, life, and energy. 

Formats come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – the creativity is boundless! However, there are generally five types of formats that I have seen in the in-person and virtual world:

So let’s take a closer look at these popular panel discussion formats: when and why they might be a good fit.  And if I have written up an example, I have also included a hyperlink to that format:

Structured Panel Discussion Formats

Consider these traditional formats to be the essential framework around many of the other formats:

Panel Discussion Formats

1. Mainstage Style.  A hard-hitting, short-duration panel discussion with panel members, typically the keynoter, main stage presenters, or invited panelists. There is no audience question and answer session (Q&A).

2. Q&A Style. A short introduction of the topic and panelists with moderator-curated questions, followed by audience Q&A.

3. Initial Remarks Style. A short introduction of the topic with each panelist taking time to introduce themselves and their perspectives on the topic. Then moderator-curated questions followed by audience Q&A.

4. Presentation Style. A short introduction of the topic and panelists with each panelist presenting their perspectives on the topic, followed by audience Q&A.

My absolute number one favorite format is to leverage a popular TV show. After all, popular TV shows have cracked the code on how to make 30-60 minutes interesting.

5. Talk Show Formats.   The easiest format to mimic is the TV talk show (daytime and late night!). It has a host/moderator and guests/panelists who have interesting conversations! Think Oprah, The View, David Letterman.

6. Debate Formats. When there are two or more distinct or polarized viewpoints, (political or otherwise), consider a classic debate format. Think of the TV show Crossfire and create a panel using the same format.

7. Hot Seat Formats. A panel of experts provides feedback to a willing audience member who presents an idea.  Think American Idol, X-Factor, or The Voice.

8. Café Style Formats. Often called a “fireside chat” (but that is an informal interview and not a panel), I prefer the term “Café Style” for an informal chat between colleagues.  Think Friends, Cheers, or any other show that is basically held in one location with the cast of characters coming in and out.

9. Game Show Formats. Great for more lighthearted topics.  You can also use game show techniques and sprinkle them into the structure of the panel. For example, you can Spin the Wheel to determine who gets to answer then next question or what IS the next question.

10. Popular Movie Formats.  If there is a movie that everyone is talking about, integrate some of the elements from the movie into the panel.  For example, a colleague moderated a panel discussion that used the movie Forrest Gump to inspire creativity – complete with costumes and peas and carrots!)

11. Pitch Panels.  Similar to a Hot Seat Format, but the willing audience member is pitching their idea to the panelists looking for more than just feedback!  Think Shark Tank.

Event Theme Panel Discussion Formats

These formats are inspired by the event theme, the panel topic, or even the event location. Just brainstorm the different elements and integrate what feels right into the panel discussion. Use this checklist to inspire your creativity!

12. Themed Formats. Take the theme of the event and get creative! Programmatic Punch leveraged the word “Punch” into a boxing format!,

13. Topical Formats. Perhaps the topic itself inspires a bit of creativity. In this example, the topic was “the hero’s journey, which lead to a rap song, which led to a format inspired by Dr. Seuss.

14. Location Formats. Panel in Hawaii? That’s an easy one. Everyone wears a Hawaiian shirt. You get the idea.

Room Set Panel Discussion Formats

Sometimes, the way the room is set can inspire a creative format.

15. Fishbowl Format (also called Panel in the Round) where panelists sit in a circle in the center of the room and the audience sits around the stage.

16. SME Format where each of the four panelists sits in one of the four corners of the room and interview the mainstage speaker(s).

17. Musical Chair Format similar to the game you played as a child. Start the first segment with three of the seven panelists sitting on the three chairs on the stage. Then play the music! The seven panelists scramble and when the music stops, only three can sit down to participate in the next segment.

18. Empty Chair Format is perfect for when you want to encourage deep dialogue that extends out into the audience. Simply add one extra chair for your panel to allow an audience member to rotate in and out of the panel.

Audience-Driven Panel Discussion Formats

When the audience has lots of questions to ask, let the audience drive the conversation! You can gather the questions ahead of time or in real-time during the panel.

19. Screened Question Format. Have the audience submit their questions via question cards, texts, tweets, or using the meeting app.

20. Capture the Question Format. Have small groups discuss what questions they would like to ask, and then start with one table’s question, answer it, then have that table select the next table to ask the next question.

21. Crowdsourced Question Format. Let the audience submit their questions using a tool such as Slido and let them “like” their favorite questions. Then just start at the top and move your way down the list!

Segment-Driven Activities

Finally, I look at each “segment” or “chunk” of time within a panel discussion to contain it’s own little format or activity. [Spoiler: To make your life easier, I wrote a book on 123 different ideas you can choose from!] Make sure that they are tied to the topic (vs some gratuitous game!), will resonate with the audience, and be congruent with the topic.  (You don’t want to do a fun Newlywed Game if you’re talking about how to ban bullying from schools.  That’s just a rude mismatch.)

22. The Newlywed Game is my fan favorite. The panelists AND audience are asked a question and the panelists write their one-word answer on a whiteboard. They turn them around at the same time. Laughter and interesting conversation ensue!

23. Progressive Answers where one panelist starts to answer the question and the moderator calls it to shift to the next panelist.

24. Rapid-Fire Panelist Polling where the moderator rattles through several quick answer questions with the panelists.

25. Agree/Disagree Game where you poll the panelists to show their stance using paddles or colored cards.

26. Lightning Round where The moderator asks the panelists a summarizing question and each panelist answers quickly and concisely.

27. Finally, there is the UnPanel Format where there IS no moderator facilitating the panel discussion.

Panel Discussion Formats

So that’s 27 different panel discussion formats – and there’s more where that came from in my book, 123 Ways to Add Pizazz to a Panel Discussion.

The point is to be creative. Don’t just show up and do the expected: the boring, traditional panel. Spice it up. Add pizazz. Make ’em want to lean in to every minute of the panel discussion!

Related Articles:

How to Organize a Panel Discussion

How to Structure a Panel Discussion

How To Create GREAT Panel Discussion Questions

Panel Formats of the Past and Improvements of Today

For more panel discussion formats like this, check out Kristin’s latest book, 123 Ways to Add Pizazz to a Panel Discussion. 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.

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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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