Creating GREAT Questions for Your Panel Discussion
The key to any great panel discussion is the quality and clarity of the panel questions. Depending on the panel discussion format, panel questions can come from the panel moderator, the audience, or as a follow-up question posed by the panel moderator, a panelist, or an audience member.
Unless you are a seasoned panel moderator or interviewer, really great questions are a result of intentional thought and preparation. This resource will equip you with 10 steps to creating awesomely powerful questions for your panel discussion.
Unfortunately, many panel discussion moderators “wing it” rather than prepare interesting and relevant questions. While “winging it” is certainly easier, they create opportunities for less-than-stellar outcomes.
Top 7 Issues with Non-Prepared Panel Questions
- Favoritism. The panel moderator asks easy, softie questions, or more questions to their favorites and fewer, harder questions to others. It comes off as unbalanced.
- Mundane. Unprepared moderators may default to easy questions the audience already knows or can find the answer to on the internet.
- Blathering. Panel moderators who haven’t put much thought into their questions tend to spend too much time stating the question and clarifying the context only to rephrase it again. Takes way too long. A good panel discussion question is tightly woven so time is best spent with the panelists answering the question. Moderator Cassie Kozyrkov says, “Another kind of shocker happens when…a panelist misunderstands the [blathering] question and sets off in a crazy direction without clarifying it first.”
- Rabbit Trail. It’s easy for a panel moderator to go down a line of questioning they are interested in. But is the audience just as interested as the moderator? If they haven’t done their research, that answer could be “NO.”
- Leading. The moderator may pose a question with an implied assumption or direction, often called a “leading question.” Any kind of bias is not appropriate for a neutral moderator.
- Blank Space. There may be some awkward transitions from question to question, segment to segment. A well-thought-out question plan starts with strategic, broad, or ”high altitude” questions, moves to the benefits and/or consequences about why the audience should care, transitions to specific questions asking for anecdotes and concrete examples, and finishes with the ability to apply the information.
- Sucked in. Finally, many panel discussion moderators are chosen because they are subject matter experts. Without a plan, it’s easy to get sucked into the conversation rather than tee up some great questions for the panel.
Don’t be THAT panel moderator who just shows up. Take the time to carefully craft good panel discussion questions using these ten steps.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Do your research
- Create a list of potential questions
- Review your list
- Cull your list
- Sanity-check your questions
- Sequence the questions
- Strategize the opening
- Tweak the questions
- Create your cue cards
- Practice asking the questions
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.
10 Steps to Create Great Questions for a Panel Discussion
1. Do Your Research
Before you put pen to paper (or fingers on the keyboard), you’ll want to do a bit of research on the topic, the panelists, and the audience.
Research the Topic. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should have a working knowledge of the topic, terms, acronyms, key issues, challenges, and perspectives to guide the conversation and ask thoughtful and insightful questions.
Research Audience Expectations.
- In Their Shoes. Imagine the types of people (even specific individuals as a model) who are likely to attend. Preemptively ask some of the questions they are likely to ask.
- Interview. Ask the conference organizer for the names and contact information for three “influencers” or “heavy hitters” who may be in the audience. Ask them what they would like to hear about and what challenges they are facing.
- Social Media. Use the conference website, a blog post, Twitter, or other feedback tools to glean questions from the community. Ask them to submit their most pressing issues and challenges.
- Email or Voicemail Blast. Some organizations have the ability to blast a voicemail or email to all the participants encouraging them to attend the session and submit their questions.
Research the Panelists. Google their work and views they hold on the topic. Review the panelists’ websites, social profiles, books, reviews, bios, blogs, recent presentations, media mentions, papers, etc.
- Take Notes. You don’t need to know everything about the panelists’ lives, but you should have a basic idea of their points of view on the topic. This will make it much easier to connect with and introduce each panelist. WARNING: This research should take at least several hours – or more if you get sucked into the Google vortex!
- Talk to Each Panelist either by phone or face-to-face and discuss:
- Expectations. Let them know what to expect (go over the format) and then ask them about their experiences with panels.
- Content. Given the topic, ask them what they would like to talk about. Tease out the juicy bits from the audience’s point of view. Look for possible areas of contention with the other panelists’ points of view.
- Rapport. As you talk to each of the panelists, you are not only assessing their speaking strengths, style, and perspectives, but you are also creating a connection and building trust.
It is your job to facilitate the conversation so the audience receives tremendous value from their expertise and perspectives. You cannot do this effectively if you don’t know the people on your panel, the topic or what your audience expects.
2. Create a List of Potential Questions
As you research the topic, talk to the panelists, and connect with the audience (either through social media or a few sample interviews), you’ll start to compile a list of potential questions. At this point, don’t worry about the exact phrasing or quality of the questions.
These questions should be insightful and specifically:
- Tied to the topic
- Reflective of a specific panelist’s work or interests
- Representative of issues the audience will be interested in
Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need – and make sure they cover the topical landscape.
3. Review Your List
When you are ready, pull out that long list of questions from your research.
Ask the following questions:
- What’s the most prevalent question on everyone’s mind?
- Why is this topic important right now?
- What are the key challenges the audience is facing about this topic?
- What are the two things that are most important to share/discover on this topic during the panel?
- Where does the panel agree and disagree about the topic?
- What’s missing?
Inspired by your research of the topic, panelists, or audience, as you curate your list of questions, or from the actual panel discussion, the best panel questions originate from curiosity. The panel moderator specifically looks for the “white space” – the ground that has not been covered before.
Dr. Diane Hamilton, nationally syndicated radio host and expert interviewer says, “I want to know more about why they did that and what they’re trying to do and what led to that decision or, whatever it is. Some of it is really my own curiosity. You just start researching and you wonder if that is the case. Some of the best questions are just gut instincts of what you want to ask just based on your own personality. And I think some people are more inquisitive. I’m very inquisitive and like that little kid that always said ‘why, why, why?’ What would I want the audience to learn from this person and what do I want to know? And sometimes it’s funny, I’ve had some really successful people tell me, ‘You’re the only one that’s ever asked me that! I’ve had a million interviews and nobody has asked me that!’ And I love it when they say that because you’ve gone somewhere that’s just not so boring. You’ve hit something that’s unusual and they like that.”
Pam Fox Rollin, executive coach and strategist, extends that curiosity to the panelists as well. She says, “I love having curious panelists because the reason why people get invited to speak on panels is they are the experts. Right? And yet, if you come with this mode of ‘I’m the expert, you bring canned responses and typical sound bites. So I ask them to be curious about the topic, about the other presenters, what are they going to discover, and what could make this panel juicy for them. And it’s usually something they haven’t thought about. As I invite them to the conversation, they wonder what this industry maverick is going to say. Who knows what’s going to come out of their mouth? So I find an entry point to curiosity for them and probe deeper. And I just find it makes a huge difference in what happens.”
Go from a good question to a GREAT question with curiosity!
4. Cull Your List
Whittle your list of questions down to at least two main questions per panelist and keep a backup of ten or more questions to use if needed. Keep questions that will:
- Deliver the biggest and broadest impact and value from the audience’s perspective
- Leverage the panelist’s expertise and experiences in a useful way
- Address an issue, challenge, or capture the interest of the audience
- Start a deeper conversation or spark an interesting debate
- Uncover something the audience can’t easily find on the internet
- Provide valuable takeaway nuggets
Don’t forget that you may have an opportunity to dig deeper and ask follow-up questions as well.
5. Sanity-Check Your Questions
When finalizing your questions, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Use your valued resources from step 1 and ask them to take a look at your draft list of questions:
- Is there something you would be interested in that I’m not asking or thinking about?
- Do you think these questions are relevant/good?
- What else should I add/consider?
- Which of these questions do you think I should dump?
6. Sequence the Questions
Typically, moderator-curated questions for the panel have a flow that moves from strategic to more tactical:
The Sequence of Questions
- Strategic. Start with broad or ”high altitude” questions designed to define the topic and discuss what is happening in the field/topic/industry. (I’ll shorthand this to “topic”.) Be careful, as your first question sets the tone for the remainder of the panel!
- Benefits. Clarify/detail the benefits and/or consequences about why the audience should care about the topic.
- Specifics. Ask for more specifics and probe further where panelists will be more inclined to share anecdotes and concrete examples.
- Application. Ensure the audience walks away with substantial value, takeaways, as well as the ability and confidence to apply the information.
Examples of Questions to Ask in a Panel Discussion
- How do you define [the topic]? What exactly do you mean when you say “[the name of the topic]”?
- Why is [this topic] so important right now to this audience?
- What is the biggest challenge facing us about [this topic] today?
- What are the future trends of [the topic]?
- What are the key success factors for those who are achieving success [in the topic]? How do you know you are making progress?
- What is the biggest or most common misperception about [the topic]?
- What can you expect from [the topic]?
- What’s the business case for pursuing [the topic]?
- How does [the topic] impact an [individual, group of people, or specific set of stakeholders?]
- Why would an [individual/group/stakeholders] need [the topic]?
- How does this benefit the user/organization/community?
- What are the long-term consequences if we ignore [this topic]?
- What do you do to make sure you/your organization is successfully achieving [the topic]?
- From your experience, what are some examples of [the topic] in practice?
- Describe for us your typical day and how you deal with [the topic]?
- What are the skills and talents required to achieve [the topic’s] desired results?
- What are the potholes we need to avoid when implementing [the topic]?
- What’s the one thing you have learned in this process that you didn’t know/couldn’t find the answer to on the internet?
- Where should [individuals, businesses, organizations] start with [the topic]?
- Do you have a specific book, magazine, podcast, tool, or technique you recommend to the audience to continue their learning?
- What advice or tips do you have for succeeding in [this topic]?
- How do you counteract or respond to the “naysayers” who say [the topic] can’t be done?
- What do we [individual/group/industry] need to do to inspire more people to embrace [the topic]?
- If there was only ONE thing you hope the people in the audience today do as a result of our conversation, what would it be?
As the panel moderator, you can fine-tune these example questions to suit the goal of the panel, the expertise of the panelists, and the expectations of the audience.
7. Strategize the Opening
The first question sets the tone for the panel, so you want to be thoughtful about how you start the questioning process. There are three schools of thought on the way you should start with moderator-curated questions:
Softie. Warm up the panelists with broad, easy questions so the panelists can settle in and relax. Ask for a definition, talk about the history of the topic, or why this topic is so interesting. Then raise the stakes, probing into more controversial areas.
Hardball. Start out with a strong, provocative question. For example, ask each panelist, in 30 seconds or less to offer a strong opinion on the topic.
Gauge the Room. When the audience’s skill level is not known, do some level-setting of the audience’s experience. For example, ask for a show of hands, “How many people have less than 2 years of experience writing Java? Between 2-5 years? And those who think they should be on the panel rather than out in the audience?”
The first person to speak will also influence the tone of the panel, so consider carefully who you want to start with. Consider having the seating plan reflect your initial order.
8. Tweak the Panel Questions
Focus and rephrase the questions more economically (the shorter, the better) to enable the panelist to answer the question in a meaningful way. Is it worded in such a way as to be as objective as possible and free from biases?
Your final litmus test for a good panel question is to filter it through the lens of the audience. Will they care? What will they do with the answer?
For example, you can ask a panel question about “future trends” or you can ask about “future trends the audience should be aware of.” It’s a subtle nuance but will help keep the focus of the panel on value to the audience (vs. what the panelist pundits care about!)
When finalizing your questions, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Make sure you ask great questions that are on everyone’s mind.
After years of creating and reviewing panel discussion questions, there are essentially 17 different types of questions panel moderators ask a panel:
- The most simple and most used type of question is the Statement Plus a Question that starts with a statement (or two) that provides context for the question.
- A type of SPQ is a Statement Plus a Quote from one of the panelists or someone else who is not on the panel.
- Another type of SPQ is a Statement Plus a Statistic followed up with a relevant question.
- The Summary Plus Request for Explanation is when the moderator prepares a brief summary of a position followed by a request for a panelist to explain their position – usually to compare and contrast from the other panelists.
- The Flip-Flop Question can be posed when a position or trend has changed over time. For example, “In 2015, you were quoted as [holding this opinion.] Do you still believe [the opinion] or has it changed and why or why not?”
- Speaking of positions, sometimes the panelist is asked a Comment Question where they are asked to comment on another panelist’s position. “What do you think about [Panelist A]’s statement?”
- A slight variation to commenting on a fellow panelist’s position is a simple Agree/Disagree Question: “Do you Agree with [Panelist B]?”
- Or go for a more controversial stance and use a polarizing question that allows the panelists to share their unique point of view. “An expert says [this] about [the topic]. Do you agree or disagree and why?”
- A Statement Plus Details explores how might an idea be achieved and the ability to make it work. “You’ve mentioned this idea; tell us how you see that working?”
- Sometimes, the question needs no embellishment. No statements, no quotes, no statistics. The moderator asks a Direct Question.
- Perhaps, the question is so darn good, the moderator will Repeat and Redirect the Question to another panelist. I call this the “hot potato” and suggest using it sparingly.
- The Hypothetical Question – is also called the “what if” question. “What would you do if/when….?”
- Every once in a while, the moderator needs to Test the Unsaid to bring out an unspoken issue. “I am wondering if the real issue is….”
- The Human Interest question enables the audience to understand the panelists as everyday people. “Every leader confronts crises, defeats, and mistakes…What’s the most significant professional setback you’ve had to face? How did you recover and what did you learn?”
- The Story Question is when the moderator asks the panelist(s) to provide a real-world story that provides more insight into the topic. “Tell us about a time when you….” or “Give us an example when you….”
- Poll the Panel by asking a closed question and all visibly share their position. “This is going to be a show of hands question. Who here would [take one action] in favor of a [different action]?”
- Lightning Round where each panelist provides a one-word/short answer. “What is ONE THING you hope the audience takes away as a result of this session? I’m going to go down the line, and we’ll start with [Panelist A].”
9. Create Your Cue Cards
You can write your questions down on 3×5 or 5×7 index cards (consider using a key-ring punched through the upper left-hand corner to keep the cards in order during the session) or use a tablet to scroll through the questions. You can also use these cards as prompts for your welcoming remarks, panelist introductions, and closing remarks. For a useful template for using index cards during panel presentations click here.
Why go through all the hassle of curating some fabulous panel questions? Consider it to be an insurance policy. Sometimes, you won’t even need to use many of them because the conversation flows easily. Other times, you may have to use every single one of them during a rather fitful panel discussion. You just don’t know what you’ll find until you get there. So why not come prepared?
4 Strategies to Bring Your Panel Discussion Script on Stage
- Nothing. You’ve done this a million times. You know what you are doing. Frankly, I don’t suggest this, but hey, if you got the goods, and you are that confident, go for it!
- One Sheet. You’ve done enough work that you just need a little confidence to be able to take a quick glance over to remind yourself of a key idea, intriguing question, segment timings, etc.
- The Detailed Script. Perhaps it is your first time and you WANT to bring all your preparation up to the stage with you. Hey, if that will make you more comfortable and confident, I say “Why not?” Just realize that once you get into the panel discussion, you won’t need all that.
- Somewhere in Between. During your prep work/rehearsal, you will naturally be more comfortable with some segments than others. Just print out the pieces you think you’ll need some help with.
5 Methods to Bring Your Script on Stage with You
- Printed on Paper. The easiest (and most obvious) way to bring your script with you on stage is to print it out on sturdy, durable paper (20lb is a bit too flimsy, while card stock is a bit too rigid).
- Laminate your One-sheet. If you are only using one sheet of paper (one side or both), why not laminate it or put it in a plastic protector? Spilled beverages can happen too!
- Printed on Index Cards. Print each segment on a separate index card and punch a hole in the upper left corner. Keep them together with a small ring so you can turn the cards easily and they won’t fall out of order! (Check out this example.)
- Use a Tablet. Forget the paper and do the same thing on your tablet. The nice thing about using a tablet is that it doesn’t matter how big or small your script is…
- Use a Teleprompter. Just like a TV newscaster, upload your script to a teleprompter. This is a fine option to open and close important panel discussions – but it will get in the way during the actual “discussion” part of the panel!
10. Practice Asking The Questions
Once you have done all the planning, take the time to legitimately practice the flow of the panel discussion. Some bits should be memorized (your introduction of the topic and the panelists as well as the closing). Others you need to vocalize (the sequence of questions) so you are completely comfortable with them and can easily shift them around. And when you “switch gears,” practice the transitions from one segment to another.
The point of all this practicing is so that you, as the panel moderator can be completely present in the conversation in the moment – making sure that the audience is getting great value from the conversation. And as a result, you’ll look brilliant!
Conclusion: Create Great Questions for a Panel Discussion
By following these nine fundamental steps, you can create great questions for a panel discussion that stimulates a scintillating conversation among the panelists.