How to Start a Panel Discussion to Ensure Panelist Success

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The first few minutes of your panel discussion are absolutely critical.  Although people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, they do.  The audience (and panelists) need to know that they are in good hands.

  • Be Confident. You’ve done your homework. You have a solid process in place.  You know the panelists.  You’ll do great!
  • Start Strong. You practiced these first few minutes and you know you are setting the tone, pace, and energy for a powerful panel discussion.

The opening typically consists of five parts:

  1. Topic Introduction. Welcome the audience and lead into the topic with a short, interesting hook that grabs their attention.  DO NOT repeat verbatim what is in the program.  Give it a fresh spin that rephrases and focuses on the promise.
  2. You and Your Role. Take just a few moments to state your name, your affiliation, your qualifications to moderate the panel and a short definition of your role as moderator.  30 seconds, TOPS.
  3. Agenda and Process. Let the audience know what is going to be covered, general guidelines about the process, ground rules, timing, and when and where to direct questions.
  4. Housekeeping. There may be some announcements that need to be made, depending on your unique circumstances:
  • Handout Availability. “There should be a handout for each participant as you walked in the door” or “These slides will be posted on or the organization’s website tomorrow.”
  • Recording Instructions. “This presentation is being taped so if you are asking a question, please step forward to a microphone.” Or “If you don’t want to be videotaped for this panel discussion, I suggest you sit on the left side of the room – out of the view of the camera.”
  • Breaks. For long panel formats, make a break schedule.
  • Phones. Remind the audience to silence their cell phones, tweet with a hashtag, take pictures, etc.
    1. Panelist Introductions. Regardless of whether you are doing the introducing or they are introducing themselves, you set the process in place. Remember, the whole point of doing introductions is to connect the audience with the panelists – who they may or may not know.

    Either have all the panelists seated or bring them up one at a time.  Make sure the panelists are viewed as competent and valuable.  After all of them have been introduced, leave a summary picture/bio slide up so that the participants can easily recall which expert is speaking.

    Watch for Snags.  While all of this is going on, you need to be the eyes and ears of the audience.  Can they hear you?  Can they hear each panelist as they begin to speak?  If at any time you have doubts, ask, “Can everyone hear?”  Don’t hesitate to ask your panelists to talk closer to the microphone, if necessary.  Ideally, the A/V staff, support staff or microphone runners can make you aware of any malfunctions as well.

  • When you confidently start your panel discussion, you’ll set the panelists up for success and let the audience know that they are in good hands.

Related Articles:

Prepare to be a Brilliant Panelist with these Steps

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

“Turn the Tables” in a Debate-Style Panel Discussion Format

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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