Powerful Questions to Ask Any Panelist
February 18, 2016
How to Start a Panel Discussion
March 3, 2016

The best panels spark a little controversy, show a difference of opinion among the panelists, and for some formats, actually generate some downright heated discussions!

It’s downright boring to hear a panelist say, “I echo what my fellow panelist has to say….”

To spark a little controversy, make sure:

  1. The topic itself is controversial.  “Nutritional Standards for Centenarians at Independent Living Facilities” might be too vague to pique the audience’s interest – unless you are a geriatric nutritionist desperate for continuing education credits!  How else might we create some interest in the topic?
    1. My brain starts going toward something like “Breakthroughs or Breakups: The latest thinking in nutritional standards for 100+ year olds.”  (The caveat here is that there IS some latest thinking going on!) or
    2. “Fact or Fiction: The Myths that Perpetuate Nutritional Standards at Independent Living Facilities Today.”
    3. The key is to hint at the controversy in the title and/or the short write-up of the panel discussion.
  2. The panelists have diverse opinions.  When thinking through whom you are going to invite, make sure the panelists themselves have differing viewpoints.
    1. Do your research and you’ll probably be able to figure it out.
    2. Or just call them up and ask.  As a panel moderator, I like to ask in my pre-work, “Among your esteemed colleagues, where do you have different opinions when it comes to nutritional standards for centenarians?”  I then probe a bit more…because sometimes they can actually be in close agreement!
    3. While it may not be their opinion, ask each panelist, “What is the most controversial thing you have seen in the world of food being served and eaten by centenarians?”  It may be that the controversial component isn’t represented on the panel – in which case you have two options:
      1. Ask another panelist who does represent that viewpoint to join the session, or
      2. As the objective moderator, you offer up the opinion as an option to consider – and then let the panelists weigh in.
  3. The audience has diverse opinions. Of course, you are going to need to know who is in your audience and if they do, in fact, have different opinions.
    1. If don’t know who is in the room, start out with:
      1. A quick poll that sheds some light on who is in the room (food service directors responsible for planning the menu, nutritionists for providing advice and counsel, facility administrators responsible for the overall health and well-being of the residents) and may reinforce the variety of opinions (no salt, no sugar, no gluten, no fun!).  It also gets the audience involved early in the discussion.
      2. You can also ask the audience to talk to a neighbor or the people at their table about the topic – and make sure the question you ask hints of some differing opinions.  For example, you can ask, “What are the misconceptions around centenarian nutritional standards?” or “What is the silliest thing you have seen served to a centenarian at a facility – could be yours or at another!”  As you debrief the answers, you are already sparking some diversity of opinions!
    2. If you are relatively sure there is some diversity of opinions in the room, you can:
      1. Divide the room between one position and another (all those “for” on one side of the room and those “against” on the other side of the room…or set up a continuum between two points)
      2. Ask each table to consider a specific statement and discuss whether it is a fact or fiction.
  4. The format inspires a conversation.  Many panels simply have the moderator ask questions directly to a few panelists and then go to audience Q&A.   Instead, you can:
    1. Ask provocative questions (garnered from your research) that spark conversation between the panelists, encouraging each other to piggyback and/or respond to each others’ ideas…beyond the boring “I echo what my fellow panelist has said.”
    2. Consider a point/counterpoint format where the panelists discuss the pros and cons of an idea
    3. Try the empty seat format where an audience member can join the conversation as a panelist.

Sparking a lively conversation doesn’t happen serendipitously.  You have to plan for it, encourage the panelists in the planning and preparation and nurture the conversation to make a lively and informative panel discussion.

To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.

Related Articles:

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Call for a Lightning Round to Add Pizzazz to your Panel Discussion

Are You Creating “Wizard of Oz” Moments in Your Panel?

Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.

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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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