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How to Moderate a Panel Discussion
May 19, 2021
Panelist Do's & Don'ts

If you are asked to serve on a panel discussion as a panelist, there are some things you should DO and some things you definitely should NOT do to be successful. Here’s my list of Panelist Do’s & Don’ts collected over the last ten years of moderating panel discussions:

11 Things a Panelist Should Do During a Panel Discussion

  1. Serve the Audience.  The audience paid good money (at the very least invested their time) to be there.  So always keep the audience in mind as you prepare.  Figure out what they want to know from you and then serve it up.  Anticipate their questions, and have answers and resources ready. 
  2. Check-In with the Moderator.  Speak to the moderator well beforehand to align your expectations with the moderator’s.  Find out who the other panelists are, why you were chosen, and what role you play.  Ask for the format of the program along with a working agenda, speaking order, and ground rules.  Finally, ask how best to support each other.  At the very least, the moderator will ask for a short bio that is interesting and relevant as well as some pithy, provocative questions about the topic.
  3. Be Prepared.  Research the other panelist’s positions and determine what makes you/your position unique from the others.  Be ready to introduce yourself succinctly (2-3 sentences is great) and to share 3-5 key messages that matter.  Be ready to support your points with concrete examples and crisp, concise stories that humanize your message and drive it home.  Think of a quick sound bite that everyone will write down because it is so cool – and so right!
  4. Be Timely.  Show up on time – even a little bit early.  Then, if you are given 5 minutes to present, a minute to share, a sentence to recap, stick to your time limits.  It’s all about respecting the audience and following the prescribed process.
  5. Follow the Moderator’s Lead.  Hopefully, you’ll have a good moderator who provides clear instructions.  Speak when invited and give signals to the moderator when you would like to contribute to the discussion.
  6. Be Honest.  Your audience wants insider information.  They may even be struggling with topical issues that you have successfully conquered.  As you share your ideas, be honest about your struggles, what worked as well as what didn’t.  Be open and honest, and a little humble too.
  7. Use the Microphone.  If there is only one microphone for all the panelists, make sure you have ready access to it.  Lift it close to your mouth and speak confidently into it while looking at the audience.
  8. Tag On.  Make it a conversation rather than a ping pong match between the moderator and individual panelists by making explicit links or references to what other panelists have said.  Add to or disagree with their contributions by saying “Let me add something to that idea…” or “We take a different approach at our company…”  Be additive and not repetitive to the discussion – and don’t feel compelled to answer every question – especially when another panelist has given a perfectly fine answer.
  9. Disagree Diplomatically.  At some point, you will disagree with the other panelists (otherwise, why have a panel discussion?).  One of the panelists will say something that is not consistent with your own view or perspective.  You’ve got to weigh in!  Respectfully disagree without being disagreeable.  Rather than saying “Jane, that’s stupid,” respond by saying something like “Jane, I understand how your research could lead to infer this; however, my fieldwork indicates otherwise.”
  10. Enjoy Yourself.  If you’re having fun, the audience will too.  Smile.  Laugh.  Tease each other in a kindhearted way.  It will be okay; your audience wants you to succeed, so show your passion and enthusiasm for the topic.  So just relax; it will all be over in an hour or so! 
  11. Make Friends.  You have the opportunity to create great relationships with your fellow panelists, moderator, and audience members.  Particularly if you were articulate and made relevant points, it’s a great way to connect with other high-profile experts.  Don’t hesitate to follow up with an email and continue the conversation!

11 Things a Panelist Should NOT Do During a Panel Discussion

  1. Don’t Wing It.  You have to do more than just show up.  Audiences are expecting a scintillating conversation similar to their experiences on CNN or Fox News.  Great panelists take the time to think through the key messages, tweetable quotes, inspiring (and concise) stories – otherwise, you may end up looking like a fool from the Jerry Springer Show.
  2. Don’t Be Boring.  Yes; you are there to educate, but you must also be interesting.  Show your energy and enthusiasm for the subject.  Have a few interesting facts, real stories, and illustrative examples.  If you’re able, try to make things a bit humorous – but leave the joke about how many panelists does it take to screw in a lightbulb at home.
  3. Don’t Bluster.  When you are speaking, keep it short.  No more than 90 seconds is a good goal.  People prefer snappy, well-thought-out answers to interesting questions. 
  4. Don’t Get Huffy.  In a good panel, you will be interrupted, challenged, and contradicted.  The moderator will cut you off if you go over time.  You do not have to answer every question.  You will not always get in the last word.  Let it go.  Be gracious to others and they will be gracious to you.  Don’t cut off other panelists or the moderator.  Don’t interrupt in the middle of another panelist’s remarks.  Don’t hog the spotlightBalance your airtime with others on the panel and give everyone a chance to weigh in and answer questions. 
  5. Don’t Use Slides.  Can you show a prop or a physical model? Put the information in a handout?  Give the audience a link to further information?  If you must, use one or two slides that require a visual representation of a key idea – a graph, chart, or image – and the audience shouldn’t have to squint to read it.
  6. Don’t Shamelessly Self-Promote.  Some marketers just can’t help themselves pitching their product, service, or company.  Don’t be that guy.  NO ONE wants to hear your sales pitch.  Instead, make your comments in service to the audience and at the end, let them know that you’ll be available after the panel to discuss the panel topic further. 
  7. Don’t Be a Contrarian.  Yes, there should be some disagreements, but don’t disagree simply because you can.  Disagree because the discussion will benefit the audience and your reputation.
  8. Don’t Think No One is Looking.  Even though you are not speaking, the audience will be looking at you.  Stay poised and professional.  Look at the other panelists when they are talking.  Don’t sigh, eye-roll, zone out, scratch, cross and uncross your legs, fiddle with your smartphone or laptop…
  9. Don’t Fake It.  If you don’t know the answer to the question, simply say so.  Don’t ramble or make something up (somebody is out there recording your response to post on YouTube immediately after the panel is over).  If someone else on the panel might be able to answer the question, punt it over by saying, “I have never experienced this myself, but perhaps Joe has got some ideas on this?
  10. Don’t Pontificate.  Don’t talk down to or lecture the audience.  You are there to have a conversation with the audience as colleagues, not to serve your ego.
  11. Don’t Distract.  Be aware of your physical presence, especially if you are on a raised platform, sitting on comfortable chairs without a table in front of you.  Short skirts, plunging necklines, dangly and clanky jewelry, shoes with worn soles, dress shoes worn with no socks distract the audience from the message and don’t add to your credibility, either. 

Related Articles:

How to Prepare to Be a Brilliant Panelist

Eight Reasons Why You Should be a Panelist

Top Ten Mistakes Panelists Make

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF | Master, 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.

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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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