Harry A. Overstreet, an American educator, first coined the term “panel discussion” in a short article “On the Panel” in October 1934, issue of The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review. In essence, Overstreet envisioned the purpose of a panel as a “glorified conversation [with] all the delight of generous give-and-take. And if it is a genuinely good conversation, it sends people away with a warm feeling not only that their own ideas have been clarified but that their understanding of other points of view has been broadened.”
The actual mechanics of a panel discussion at that time were to:
- Set the Stage. “The members of the panel (usually not more than eight) sit on the platform, behind a long table facing the audience, so that they may comfortably lean forward as they engage in the discussion.”
- Have a Chairman. “One member of the panel serves as chairman. His function is to state the problem and to keep the discussion well within the areas of relevancy.”
- Have No Speeches. “If he is a wise chairman, he announces at the beginning the one simple rule of the procedure; that no one, under any circumstances, is to rise and make a speech. To do so, he indicates, will be their one unforgivable offense.”
- Kick It Off. “Informally introducing the individual members of the panel, he then states briefly the problem of the evening and throws the discussion open to the panel, inviting any member to speak as the spirit moves him.”
- Not Rehearse. “A nervous chairman will feel that something in the nature of a program must be agreed upon beforehand. He will therefore gather his panel about him and conduct a kind of preliminary discussion. No worse procedure can be imagined. The stimulation and the intellectual value of the panel method lie in its sheer spontaneity, for it is in the atmosphere of spontaneity that the best flashes of insight frequently come, the most fascinating turns of thought, the quips of humor.”
- Engage the Audience in Q&A. “Usually, at the end of an hour or so – or better, when something in the way of one or more clear-cut opinions has shaped itself in the panel-the discussion is thrown open to the audience. It is most interesting to watch the swift response. The audience has thus far had no chance to express themselves. But they have been literally sitting on the edges of their chairs. When their chance comes, therefore, they are instantly on their feet. Usually from all over the room, questions and opinions come like rifle cracks, and for another hour the discussion waxes warm.”
What is a Panel Discussion Today?
While the mechanics are still basically the same, a few modern updates are necessary to keep Overstreet’s model current to have a successful panel discussion:
- In Front of an Audience. The audience was presumed to be in-person; however, panelists and the audience can participate remotely and view a replay of a recorded panel.
- Get Rid of the Long, Draped Table. It creates a barrier between the panelists and the audience. Consider seating the panelists in a shallow semi-circle in comfortable chairs with a small cocktail table in front or to the side.
- Limit the Number of Panelists to 3 or 4. Eight panel members are too many to have a meaningful conversation around a specific topic. We have found the sweet spot for a group of experts, thought leaders, and practitioners to converse is 3 or 4 people.
- Carefully Select a Skilled Moderator. This is crucial to the success of your program. Never assume that a celebrity or well-known person can do this task. Do your due diligence when selecting an experienced facilitator from within the organization, an industry expert, or a professional speaker to moderate a panel.
- No Speeches. This is equally as relevant, if not more so. Overstreet called it a panel discussion NOT a panel presentation for a reason. If you must, do speeches BEFORE the panel starts!
- No Rehearsals. There is some value to giving the panelists a preview of the panel discussion format, structure, and process you will use – and save the discussion about the content for the actual session.
- Engage the Audience Early. Today’s audiences are demanding a more engaging panel. You can use technology enablers (social media, email, etc.) to engage a group of people before the session starts and continue the conversation afterward. Furthermore, there are myriad ways to engage the audience during the session beyond just asking the audience questions at the end.
- “He” Can Be a “She.” Overstreet uses the pronoun “he” throughout his discourse, presumably because most moderators and panelists were men at that time. Unfortunately, many moderators and panelists today continue to be men (often called a “manel“) although it is even more important than ever for the panelists to represent the diverse populations within the audience. And that probably includes women as well as other under-represented groups. 🙂
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Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high-stakes meeting facilitator, is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out her free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel discussion and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.