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A recipe for panel disaster is allowing the panelists to “just show up” and expect brilliance to spring forth.  Sure, it could happen if the panelists are socially aware, have met each other before, and are willing to stay focused on the topic.  But without any preparation, it probably won’t go so well.

shutterstock_277372325I’m a big fan of preparing the panelists ahead of time as to the process we’ll be using – and not so much about the content.  If you talk too much about the topic beforehand, then you’ve already had the panel discussion and the audience loses out on the spark and spontaneity of live interaction.  It’s a delicate balance.

Here are my suggestions on how to prepare your panelists to be absolutely brilliant on game day:

Pre-Event Email.  Send them a pre-event email with the following information:

  • Panel Info. Panel title, date, time, location, description, objectives and promotional material.
  • Panelist Info. Names, short bios and websites of other panelists, where to register and where to meet up just prior to the start.
  • Panel Format. How you plan to run the panel and the first one or two questions you intend to ask.
  • Audience. Audience demographics and estimated size so panelists can bring the appropriate number of handouts, books, etc.
  • Room Setup. Backdrop, chairs and platform configuration.
  • Presentations. Specific instructions, e.g., time frames, slideshow format, getting the slideshows to you, etc.
  • A/V. Audio-visual capabilities and requirements, e.g., microphones, coordination of video, presentation, etc.
  • Promotion. Degree of appropriate self-promotion as well as use of social media.
  • Pre-Event Meet Up. Ask if they are willing to join a brief call to plan the session and if so, best  times to call.

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. Here are some key items to cover:

  • Welcome. Set the tone for how excited you are.
  • Panel Info. Panel title and objectives.
  • Self Introductions. Name and two sentence focus area of expertise, approach or opinion. Be firm in enforcing the two sentence rule – you are modeling being an effective facilitator!
  • Audience. Review the audience demographics and size.
  • Panel Format. Review the format/agenda.
  • Questions. Share the first few questions you will ask during the panel and see if there are any questions they want you to ask.
  • Props. Encourage props or items to help the conversation or illustrate a key point.
  • Other? Open the floor for any questions from the panelists.
  • Event Meet Up. Confirm the time and location (speaker lounge, green room, etc.) to meet about an hour before the event to go over last minute issues.

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. 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!

Touch Base.  As soon as you get to the venue, seek out your panelists to say “hello.”  Help them get settled, remind them of the objective and ground rules, and answer any last minute questions they may have.  Chances are they don’t need your help, but they will appreciate the effort – and it allows them to be brilliant on stage.

For more tips on preparing for a panel, listen to this podcast.

Kristin Arnold MBA, CMC, CPF, CSP, is a professional meeting facilitator and panel moderator.  She is passionate about making meetings and panel discussions more engaging, interactive and collaborative. You can read more of her work in one of her books Team Basics, Email Basics, Team Energizers, or Boring to Bravo.

Related articles:

Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Panels?

Panels of Your Peers: What is Different?

The Anatomy of a Powerful Panel





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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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