Panel Discussion Recovery Lines: What to do When the Unexpected Occurs

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Panel Discussion Recovery Lines

After you have moderated panel discussions for a while, you realize it is simply a matter of time before some “incident” will occur in the middle of your panel discussion.

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Everyone knows that S#!T happens – some of which you have control over (your attitude, the structure and format, your questions), and some simply you do not control (stage or technology malfunctions, external disruptions, or acts of God!)

Meeting Planners International (MPI) has done the work to identify potential issues that could happen in a meeting in their Emergency Action Plan. I don’t think you have to go overboard in your planning, you can put a little thought into how you would respond if such an incident occurred:

  • Ask the meeting organizer for the venue emergency plan and contact info.
  • With the organizer, create a list of worst-case scenarios and solutions — for example, panelist no-show, technical issues, typical emergency scenarios (e.g. a power failure) — as well as recommended courses of action.
  • Think about how you would respond in each scenario. As the panel moderator, the audience will be carefully looking to you to acknowledge the disruption and respond appropriately.

I would argue that many things that could disrupt the program are smaller in scale and not that unexpected. If you look around the room, you might see some clues about a potential issue and then think about how you might recover.

Just to be clear: I am not talking about panelist or audience disruptions. You can (and should) expect that to happen and your response is part of your role in facilitating the conversation. I’m talking about here what you do when something truly unexpected occurs.

For example, Rob Biesenbach shared this story:

At my speech, there happened to be a baby in the room. Kind of unusual for a business conference, but it was a nice locale and people brought spouses and family and this was a breakfast session.

Anyway, the baby cried out right in the middle of my talk and without missing a beat I said, “Even the baby hates PowerPoint.”

The crowd ate it up. Later on, someone asked if that was really ad-libbed. The answer? Sort of.

Before the speech as I was scoping out the room (which you should definitely do in advance), I noticed the baby and thought, “What happens if he starts crying?”

I came up with several possible things to say and, sure enough, the kid cried as if on cue and I was ready.

Beisenbach advises: “Be ready for ANYTHING.”

Here’s one of my favorite examples from professional speaker and humorist Tim Gard. He fell down the stairs from the stage and while lying on the floor, said, “I will now take questions from the floor!” (You can see him telling the story here).

Exponential Growth Expert Michael Podolinsky shares a similar experience when he was on a black floor stage with bright lights. He says, “Below were black tiles in front of the stage and then white tiles. I thought the white was the edge. I stepped off and as I was falling, I leaned back and caught the stage edge with my shoe… slowing my descent. Screams were heard but I landed on my feet. My first comment: “Now that I have your attention…”

And then there is this story from, Forbes Staffer Jena McGregor from the 2023 Forbes Future of Work Summit:

And lest anyone think such events go off without a hitch, one of my favorite moments was when a floral decoration on the wall behind our speakers fell and hit my unflappable Forbes colleague, panel moderator Diane Brady, who didn’t miss a beat, cracking at least four perfectly timed one-liners in response to the incident within seconds (“our worker’s comp policy is amazing,” she quipped). It was a good reminder of the power of humor, resilience and grace under pressure in moments you can’t control.

Certainly, your ability to recover is about being able to think on your feet, but it also helps to think about the potential “incidents” and have some recovery lines in your back pocket!

Biesenbach reminds us: “The important thing to remember when you’re giving a presentation is that your audience will forgive mistakes; it’s how you handle them that matters. Face them with composure, professionalism, and a little bit of grace and you’ll win people over and get them on your side.”

Related Articles

How to Organize a Panel Discussion

How to Moderate a Panel Discussion

10 Common Mistakes Panel Moderators Make During a Panel Discussion

21 Ways to Calm Your Nerves Before 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 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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