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When moderating a panel virtually, consider using the “breakout room” function – smaller group sessions that are split off from the main meeting.

You can use breakout rooms at:

  • The beginning to ask for the smaller groups to identify questions for the panelists (try the hot seat technique!)
  • During the panel to ask the small groups to discuss a relevant point
  • Before the Q&A session to identify questions for the panelists
  • Right before the end to summarize key takeaways

Here’s how to set up your virtual breakout groups for success:

  1. Clearly state the panel topic.
  2. Provide any process guidance needed.  “Each of you came to this panel wanting insights or answers to your questions.  What questions do you have?  Please have one person in your group write down the top three questions your group can come up with.  We’ll be adding it to the ‘questions’ functionality you can find at the bottom of your screen.”
  3. Identify how they are going to transmit the questions to the moderator.  Here are some ideas:
    • Have each small group select a person to take notes in their own small group chatbox.  The recorder will then need to copy/paste that information into another location (the main room questions or chatbox) for all to see. (BTW – The info from the breakout chatbox will NOT transfer over to the main chatbox.)
    • Have each small group recorder take notes in a shared Google Doc, or other document capture tool such as or PollEverywhere.  Note: the other small groups will have visibility into that shared document as they input the information.
    • Have each team member directly input information into the chatbox, a shared Google Doc or another capture tool.
  4. Place the team members into breakout groups with the time that they will return to the main room.
    • You can send them randomly to a specific number of rooms OR pre-select whom you want in each room.  If you are going to pre-select, do this prior to the start of the meeting!
    • Send a broadcast email with a reminder of the topic and any process guidance.
    • Pop into the breakout rooms to check on their progress.  If it looks like they will need more time, you can change the time to return.
    • One minute prior to closing the breakout room, send a 30-second reminder.
  5. Thank them for coming back and you can either launch into the questions they have submitted or ask for one small group to ask their best question, then the panelists answer.  Have different small groups ask their best question, panelists answer etc..
  6. After the panel, you can decide what to do with the remaining questions.  You can ignore them (no!) or use them to extend the conversation beyond the event.  Use these unanswered questions to write an article or blog post, prepare a Q&A sheet, or conduct an in-depth video interview with a subject matter expert.

Using virtual breakout rooms can be simple – as long as you have thought it through.  So go ahead, try this technique at your next virtual panel discussion when you want to engage the audience, shift gears, or ensure solid takeaways.

Related Articles

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

How to Structure a Panel Discussion

For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. 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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