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Regardless of how prestigious your panelists are as well as the intense preparation you put into your panel discussion, you must intervene when a panelist:

1. Filibusters.  For the long-winded panelists that go on and on and on and there isn’t a conclusion to the thought in sight. It’s good information, but they are just taking way too long to express their idea.  In the preparation, you should have a pre-negotiated “signal” between you and the panelists, so hopefully, they’ll take a cue from you.  If not, when they take a breath, politely intervene.  Cut in and shift the focus to another panelist.  Start with a pre-negotiated cue.

2.  Has Diarrhea of the Mouth. Unlike the filibusterer, you might run into the panelist who babbles, rambles and goes on and on and on.  Unfortunately, you have no idea what they just said.  If you can’t follow the conversation and can’t pinpoint the key message, ask, “Excuse me, that was a lot of information. Can you please headline that into one sentence?”  Mark Diamond suggests that you can tighten up the conversation by “injecting key questions at the right time: ‘I hear what you are saying, but how do you really make this work in your legal department?,’ [and] drawing out interesting content.”

3.  Dominates. Although you have encouraged the panelists not to dominate, the panel hog seems to always answer the questions first and have something to say, regardless if another panelist has already made the point. Watch for when they breathe and interject in a nice way. Comment on their opinion and ask a complimentary question to a panelist who hasn’t had the opportunity to contribute as much. If this behavior continues, start calling on specific panelists to answer the questions.  Unfortunately, that cuts down the lively banter and exchange between the panelists, but that’s better than giving in to the hog!

4.  Veers Off Topic.  Although you do all the right things to set up the panel at the beginning, the conversation may veer off-topic. Although this new conversation may be very stimulating, you owe it to the audience to make sure the content matches the promotional material.  Scott Stratten says, “People pick which concurrent session to go to based on that write-up, which means they aren’t going to another….If you don’t deliver on your promise, not only is there a letdown, but a missed opportunity to see another session that may have been more suitable.”  That being said, sometimes you NEED to veer off-topic.  I call this a “strategic moment.”  Check-in with the audience and if they clearly want to go off in this new direction, well then, be flexible and adapt.

5.  Interrupts Others.  It’s downright annoying when one panelist constantly interrupts another.  After this happens a few times, make sure the panelist finishes his contribution before you designate or allow another panelist to react.  You might intervene with, “Let’s let Sally finish her thought.”

6.  Is Hostile. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes you will get a hostile panelist who blatantly doesn’t want to be there – and will let everyone know.  Or, they display their dismay by not answering any questions. Hopefully, you have scoped this out in your planning, but you may run into this rather awkward and uncomfortable situation.  You can either ignore it (which if the panelist is ignoring you, it’s not a problem until AFTER the panel when accusations will fly), or you can call a spade a spade.  “I see that you’re upset about this….what about this topic is so disconcerting?”

7.  Is Content Clueless.  Panelists may mention something that’s startling, confusing, or controversial and then they’ll just continue on as if it’s common knowledge or they don’t want to explain anymore. “Don’t let this happen,” cautions David Spark.  “It leaves a huge gap in the discussion. If the question popped into your head, it’s probably popped into the head of everyone in the room. But don’t always rely on your own judgment. As a moderator, you might not fit into the audience demographic. What you know, and what the audience knows can be drastically different.”  Don’t be afraid to ask the question everyone in the room wants to ask!

8.  Pitches a Product. Your audience has spent time and money to attend this panel discussion; they don’t want to hear sales pitches from the panelists.  When one vendor talks about how great his company or product is, then the next panelist will feel compelled to do the same and before you know it, you have a one-hour commercial. Hopefully, you have had a prevention strategy to alert your panelists that you will intervene promptly…and then do so if they dare to transgress.

9.  Too Polite.  Scott Berkun says that, “For a panel to work, the panelists must be comfortable disagreeing with, or passionately support, each other in front of a crowd.  Few professionals are willing to do this, especially if they just met the other panelists five minutes ago.  They know that to openly criticize someone else is likely to make them seem like a jerk. Why take that risk?” Fair enough, Scott. In the prep work, encourage the panelists to voice their opinions.  Audiences LOVE a little drama, contention, and dialogue, so set the panel up to deliver something they can’t get elsewhere.

10.  Embarrasses Another.  It happens.  I wish it didn’t, but you need to be prepared when one panelist humiliates another, puts him down, says something snarky. You have to quickly shift the focus.  Sonia Herrero says, “If anyone puts a panelist on the spot, take the spotlight yourself or maneuver it onto someone else who won’t mind being center-stage for a while.”

So there you have it.  The top ten things panelists could do during a panel discussion..and how the moderator can still make lemonade out of lemons!

For more resources on how to make meetings, panels, and room sets better, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

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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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