A Comprehensive Guide to Organizing a Panel Discussion
Congratulations Meeting Organizer! Of all the different types of meeting formats, you decided to have a panel discussion at your event! Panel discussions are a powerful way to engage your audience, share diverse perspectives, and provide in-depth insights on a particular topic.
Now it is time to organize the panel discussion and you are thinking, “How hard can it be?” You select a topic, grab a few panelists, ask one to moderate the discussion and you’re on to the next task on your to-do list!
Whoa! Not so fast! It’s not quite as simple as that. With a little bit of forethought and intentionality, you can dramatically improve your odds of success. After all, audiences don’t have high expectations of a panel, and you probably don’t either.
Let’s change that perception! As a seasoned meeting facilitator and panel moderator, I’ve created this comprehensive guide with nine essential steps to ensure your panel discussion not only achieves the objectives, but is lively, informative, and the hit of the conference!
TABLE OF CONTENT
- Pick a strong topic, premise, and title
- Clarify your vision for the panel
- Select a skilled and impartial panel moderator
- Select, invite, and confirm D.E.E.P. panelists
- Agree on a structure and format
- Confirm logistics
- Promote the panel
- Follow up after the panel is over
- Prepare for Murphy’s Law
Note: These steps are iterative in nature. They build on each other and based on recent decisions you may have to go back and adjust your findings in earlier steps.
9 Steps to Organize a Panel Discussion
1. Pick a Strong Topic, Premise, & Title
The success of your panel discussion begins with the topic you choose. It should be relevant, timely, and genuinely interesting to your target audience. A compelling one to three-word “topic” lays the foundation for a meaningful discussion. But don’t stop there!
Select a thought-provoking “premise” for the panel: an assertion or proposition that forms the basis of the panel discussion. Here are some premise examples for a panel on Artificial Intelligence (AI):
- The pros and cons of AI
- Best practices in using AI in business applications
- The unintended consequences of AI
- Intellectual property issues with AI
Notice: each of these premises takes the discussion in a specific direction vs. allowing the topic to stay too general.
Finally, you’ll want to create an intriguing “title” that signals the fact this panel will be lively and engaging instead of dull and boring. A catchy and effective title should:
- Be appropriate to the occasion or tie into the conference theme
- Provide enough information about the subject so that potential attendees can tell whether this is likely to be of interest to them
- Be succinct and to the point
- Pique the interest of the reader or potential listener
The premise and the title may be the same, but probably not. “The Pros and Cons of AI” sounds kinda boring. What about “AI: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”? Or “The Blessing and the Curse of AI”? I’m sure there are TONS of ways you can liven up the topic and the premise to create a title that has the audience yearning to attend your panel discussion!
2. Clarify your Vision for the Panel
What do you want to achieve? What key takeaways do you want the audience to gain? What elements do you want to see…or not? Are you aiming to educate, inspire, or spark a debate? What do you hope to hear about the panel after the panel is over? Having a clear vision will guide your decisions throughout the planning process. Take a look at these factors to help you clarify your vision:
- Formality – Formal to casual
- Discourse – polite to confrontational
- Tone – Serious to playful
- Purpose – Informational to Persuasive
- Control – structured to unstructured
- Duration – Short (20 mins) to long (90 mins)
- Topical Focus – highly focused to more general discussion
- Audience Engagement – passive to active
- In-person, Virtual, or Hybrid – In the post-Covid world, most conferences offer virtual and hybrid options in addition to the traditional, in-person event. Keep in mind, that it is not necessary to have every panelist physically present in the same room. You can host a panel discussion that has a mix of in-person and virtual (or remote) participants.
Your answers to these questions will guide your subsequent thinking and planning for the panel and help to set measurable goals and objectives to gauge your success. For example, you want to educate the audience about the topic. How will you know? Hallway buzz? Feedback from the moderator, panelists, and audience to assess the discussion’s effectiveness? Meeting evaluation? Follow ups?
3. Select a Skilled and Impartial Panel Moderator
I’m astounded to hear meeting organizers tell me they rarely vet panel moderators. They typically find a panel moderator by asking:
- A local celebrity, such as a newsperson.
- A well-known member of the association.
- A good sponsor who needs a little visibility to be happy.
- A colleague offered to put together a panel.
- An associate who mentioned a certain person would be a good moderator.
- Google “who can moderate a panel?”
- One of the speakers to do it.
- No one to moderate the panel, thinking a great conversation will spontaneously happen.
Just make sure your panel moderator is experienced, relatively knowledgeable about the topic (yet can also be objective and impartial), and skilled in managing discussions. A skilled moderator is your best insurance to keep the conversation focused, ensuring equitable participation within a defined amount of time.
It’s a good idea to perform the same kind of due diligence in selecting a skilled panel moderator as you would for your main stage keynoter:
- Assemble a List of Potential Candidates. Don’t forget to aim high and be visually diverse! It’s great to Google the usual suspects, but you can also work with a reputable speakers bureau to help you find just the right fit for your audience. (Full disclosure, I’m available on that list.)
- Check Credentials. Have they ever moderated a panel before? Just because they’re nice or a famous person doesn’t mean they have the skills to facilitate a robust panel discussion.
- Verify. Beware of people you think should be able to facilitate a conversation; they may be fabulous at reading from a teleprompter and lousy at impromptu performances. Ask for and check their client references and see if you can catch them in action. Do they have videos uploaded on YouTube? How interactive are they? Is the tone conversational? Is this person going to be effective with your audience? Do they seem to be genuinely interested and willing to do the work?
- See Them in Action. If possible, observe the person in action at an upcoming event. Sometimes, that’s just not possible (distance gets in the way or the other client doesn’t want you to listen in), but it never hurts to ask.
- Listen to Your Intuition. If it’s hard to find good video or to see them in action, then rely on your intuition using a few indicators of success:
- When you initially call to see if they are available, they should ask good, open-ended questions about the program, the objectives, and the people in the room.
- When you ask about their experiences, they are able to share several instances where they moderated a panel before—possibly with the same kind of audience.
- Ask them what kind of preparation they typically put into moderating a discussion.
- Ask them about how they would go about engaging and involving the audience.
You have way too much at stake to allow just anyone to moderate your panel discussions. Before you say, “Yes” to that usual suspect, check them out. You’ll have a higher probability of making your panel extraordinary.
4. Select, Invite, & Confirm D.E.E.P. panelists
- Diverse. Beware of lining up a panel that is too similar and/or comfortable with each other. A group in complete agreement makes for a boring panel. A panel who knows each other well may lack a fresh perspective. And don’t forget about visual diversity. A panel that looks too homogenous may not reflect the diversity within the audience.
- Expertise. Ask a recognized authority, influencer, or thought leader within the industry who possesses strong enough credentials to generate credibility quickly through a bio or 30-second introduction. Or find a practitioner who has firsthand knowledge about the topic and has applied it successfully (or not) in the real world. You can also consider stakeholders—those representatives along the value chain. Invite a high-profile end-user customer, an employee, or a vendor partner who has expertise on the topic.
- Eloquent. Panelists should be good conversationalists. How good are they on the phone? Was it a monologue or a discussion? Can they express their opinion and take a controversial position on a topic without being a jerk? Review video footage to make sure the potential panelist has the ability to keep the audience engaged and interested.
- Prepared. Some high-profile personalities have one speech and won’t (or cannot) tailor their presentation and/or comments for your specific audience or topic. Find someone who will do the work—who will have three key messages the audience needs to hear complemented with an anecdote, metaphor, analogy, example, or illustration specifically for them.
Warning: Just because someone recommends a panelist, doesn’t mean they will be brilliant at discussing your topic in front of your audience. Aim high and don’t settle for the usual suspects. Don’t forget to do a little due diligence. Research their backgrounds through LinkedIn and Google. Get to know their points of view on the topic and potential areas of contention. Reach out to others in your network who know or are connected to them in some way.
Invite the Panelists. Assemble the list of names, email addresses, and direct or mobile phone numbers of your prospective panelists along with a compelling reason to accept your invitation. Send an email with the date, time, and location of the session and confirm their participation. Ask for their most up-to-date bios, social handles, photos, and audio-visual release forms (if applicable).
Be Prepared for Murphy’s Law. Anything can happen. Prepare a few backup panelists – just in case one cancels or doesn’t show.
Confirm Details with the Panelists. Never assume that your panelists have done a panel before, so provide them with as much detail as you can to make sure they are clear about the expectations and comfortable with their role at key times:
- Pre-Event Email. Send them a pre-event email with relevant information:
- Pre-Event Meet Up. A short conference call or video conference (30 minutes) a week or two before the panel allows the opportunity for everyone to connect and hear the same information sent in the email as well as ask any format questions. You don’t want to conduct the panel beforehand, so keep this light and social. If you believe there might be a lack of controversy or potential overlap in answers or opinions, you may want to probe each panelist’s approach to the topic. It is also a nice touch to invite the meeting chair/planner to attend/listen in.
- Final Confirmation. Take notes during the pre-event meet-up and email them to all panelists. This also serves as an excellent final confirmation of their participation.
- Break Bread Together. Invite the panel to go to breakfast, lunch, or dinner together, especially if they have not met. This is meant to be an opportunity to relax, get to know each other, and build a rapport that will be obvious on stage. It is NOT the place to hold the panel discussion!
5. Agree on a Structure & Format
Consider the structure to be the essential framework of the panel discussion, (the tasks, the flow, and the timing). The typical panel consists of seven tasks that are performed in the following order:
- Panelist introductions
- Panel presentation and/or initial remarks
- Moderator-curated questions directed to the panelists
- Questions from the audience directed to a panelist(s) or other interactive elements with the audience
- Thank you and final administrative remarks
You may opt to do all seven tasks, omit some, or combine a few to achieve the overall desired results.
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:
- Traditional Structured Formats
- Popular TV Show or Movie Formats
- Event Theme and/or Location Formats
- Room Set Formats
- Audience-Driven Panel Discussion Formats
- Segment-Driven Activities
Here are over 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.
Once you and your panel moderator have agreed on the topic, panelists, structure, and format, it is the moderator’s job to coordinate with the panelists and prepare for the panel discussion. You can now turn your organizer energy to the logistics to support the panel.
6. Confirm Logistics
Confirm the venue capabilities and constraints including logistical aspects such as room sets, furniture, technical equipment (for both physical and virtual events), and a reliable internet connection for virtual discussions.
- Room Setup. The setup of the room is crucial to the success of the panel and shapes the way you can command the attention of the panelists and the audience. As a general rule, the cozier the better as you want to inspire a great conversation that everyone wants to hear.
- Platform. In audiences of more than a hundred people, the panelists should be on a platform that allows everyone to see them – or have the panelists sit on high bar stool chairs that have a back and don’t swivel.
- Moderator Station. There is no “right” place to be located; just be aware of the pro’s and con’s of each:
- Standing at a Lectern. Although you have a place to put your notes, the lectern is a barrier between you and everyone else.
- Stand On the Side. The moderator stands stage right and is free to move about the stage. It may be harder to make eye contact and intervene with the panelists.
- Seated Among the Panelists. The moderator sits (rather than stands) stage right. It can be difficult to intervene.
- Seated Between the Panelists. Perfect for a debate format, this style enables you to intervene easily in either direction. It also makes you the focal point for the audience, splits the panel in half, and makes it harder for the panelists to interact with each other.
- In the Audience. Often referred to as Oprah-style, this style makes you the center of attention. It is best when there are significant audience questions and interactions.
- Furniture. The placement and type of furniture contribute to the ambiance. There are pro’s and con’s to each setup:
- Formal. Most panels are seated behind skirted tables where panelists can make notes and keep materials handy. Unfortunately, the table is a physical barrier that separates the panelists from the audience. It also diminishes the panelists’ natural body language.
- Informal. Seat the panelists in a shallow semi-circle in comfortable chairs with a small cocktail table in front or to the side. Although their notes will be held in their laps, this eliminates the “barrier” between the panel and the audience, thus increasing the intimacy of the dialogue. (Note: If you do this, please let the panelists know. You’ll be amazed to discover short skirts, holey (or no) socks, and other wardrobe malfunctions!)
- Water & Writing. Have water on the table plus paper pads and pencils available to allow the panelists to take notes.
- Screen. Place the screen to the left of the stage (upstage right) and NOT behind the panel!
Microphones. For audiences under 50 people, you may be able to get away without using microphones. Between 50-75, it’s nice to have. Over 75, use some kind of amplification system. Even if you don’t think you need it, other people will appreciate it!
- Panelists. Each panelist should have an individual lavaliere microphone; however, budget or logistics may make it necessary to share. When sharing a microphone, a wireless handheld is preferable. If sitting at a table, a table microphone is acceptable.
- Moderator. The moderator should always have a lavaliere microphone or use the lectern microphone. When moving into the audience for Q&A, the moderator needs an additional wireless handheld to capture audience comments.
- Audience. If the moderator stays on the stage, you’ll need to have a “runner” (or two) with a wireless microphone in hand OR a wireless or corded microphone on a stand in strategic places throughout the audience.
Plan and Test Your Tech. Regardless of whether your discussion is in-person, virtual, or hybrid, test audio, video, and any presentation tools to avoid technical glitches or delays. At the very least, make sure the audience has the ability to see and hear the moderator and panelists. If livestreaming the panel, make sure the setup is optimized to record crisp, quality audio and video. If bringing in a remote panelist, think through how you want the audience to see the panelist on the stage with the other panelists. How easily the remote panelist(s) be able to converse with the moderator and fellow panelists?
7. Promote the Panel
You’re all set; You have selected an awesome topic, premise, title, moderator, and panelists for your upcoming panel. Now you need to promote your panel discussion with these four key steps:
- Write Compelling Promotional Copy
Your promotional copy is the gateway to your panel discussion. It’s the first impression attendees will have, so it needs to be attention-grabbing and persuasive. The tone and style of your copy should align with your event’s branding and the expectations of your audience. By creating compelling and persuasive copy, you’ll increase the likelihood of attracting and engaging attendees for your panel discussion.
- Start With a Captivating Hook. The opening lines of your promotional copy should pique curiosity and entice readers or viewers to learn more.
- Be Clear and Concise. In the digital age, attention spans are short. Keep your copy concise while conveying the essential information.
- Highlight Benefits and Takeaways. Make it clear why attending the panel discussion is beneficial. Describe the key takeaways attendees can expect.
- Use Persuasive Language. Employ persuasive techniques to encourage action. Phrases like “Don’t miss out on…” or “Join us for an unforgettable discussion” can create a sense of urgency and excitement.
- Incorporate Testimonials. If you have testimonials from previous attendees or endorsements from panelists, include them in your copy. Positive feedback builds credibility and trust.
- Create a Sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Tap into the fear of missing out by emphasizing the exclusivity and uniqueness of the panel discussion. Highlight limited seats or special access for registered attendees.
- End with a Call to Action (CTA). End your copy with a clear and compelling call to action. Use action-oriented verbs like “Register Now,” “Reserve Your Spot,” or “Join the Conversation.”
- A/B Testing. Consider running A/B tests on different versions of your copy to determine which resonates most with your target audience. Analyze click-through rates and engagement metrics to refine your approach.
- Create a Multi-Channel Promotion Strategy
To ensure that your panel discussion reaches a wide audience, use a multi-channel promotion strategy. This approach maximizes exposure and encourages participation. Consider the following channels:
- Create & Post Compelling Multi-Channel Content
Engage your target audience with valuable content related to the panel discussion:
- Post blogs, podcasts, articles, and infographics
- Share video previews, teasers, recording links
- Host live Q&A sessions with panelists on social media
- Encourage and invite attendees to submit questions in advance
- Conduct polls to gauge interest in panel topics
- Create a short web-based survey to complete prior to attending the event
8. Follow Up after the Panel is Over
All panel discussions must end, but that doesn’t mean the end of the conversation. As the organizer, you have several methods to keep the conversation going:
- Create Conversation Spaces. Either keep the room available for attendees to keep talking or designate an area to continue the conversation. Stay until all the questions have been answered.
- Seek Out Others who were highly engaged and connect with them sometime during the conference. Perhaps they might be interested in spearheading some ideas to continue the conversation!
- Thank You’s. Send a personal note or email to the panel moderator, each panelist, the meeting organizer and anyone else who made your life easier. Add something specific about what they did or said that contributed to the panel’s success.
- Summary Report. Ask your panel moderator or designate a colleague to provide a written summary of the panel discussion.
- Share Resources. Provide relevant resources or references related to the discussion topics.
- Question Cards. Collect the question cards and coordinate responses from the panelists. You can use this information to continue the conversation.
- Repurpose Your Summaries. Post the highlights, key quotes, and photos on the event website, social media, etc.
- Repurpose the Recordings. Post the recording and provide links and excerpts from the recordings/transcripts for follow-up communications.
- Critique. Within 24 hours after the session, assess whether the discussion met its intended objectives and what lessons can be learned for future panels. Make a few notes about what you liked and what you might do differently the next time you organize a panel discussion.
- Debrief. Chat with the panel moderator and the panelists about the session. Review the audience evaluation forms to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Ask if there was anything they would have liked to do differently so you can do a better job next time.
- Keep Learning. Review the entire panel process and integrate your learning into each subsequent panel you organize, moderate, or participate in!
9. Prepare for Murphy’s Law
Often overlooked, pay attention to Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Anticipate potential issues and have backup plans in place. This includes having spare microphones, backup internet connections, and a plan for addressing unexpected disruptions.
You may also want to consider having some “recovery lines” in your back pocket for the not-completely-unheard-of potential problems!
Conclusion: Organize a Panel Discussion
By following these nine fundamental steps, you can organize a panel discussion that not only meets but exceeds your objectives and becomes the hit of the conference! Remember, a well-prepared panel discussion hinges on thoughtful planning, skillful moderation, and delivery of value to the audience.