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I’ve been wondering lately about the placement of panels, specifically when to have a panel discussion inserted into the flow of the program. True enough, panel discussions are an excellent format to bring diverse viewpoints together to have a meaningful conversation and valuable takeaways for the participants. I’ve seen some panels that are placed perfectly where the different elements of the program flow well into each other. Yet I’ve also seen some panels that are clearly wedged in somewhere they don’t belong!


So what is the optimal placement of a panel discussion in the program of a longer meeting, conference, or convention? The answer depends on what the objective is.

When to Have a Panel Discussion

  • Tee Up a Topic. At the beginning of the day (or segment of the program), you may want to use a panel discussion to provide an overview of the issues surrounding a specific topic. Once the “table has been set,” the rest of the programming can keep referring to key elements.
  • Dig Deeper. After a segment that has provided an overview of a topic, you can use a panel discussion to dig deeper into more serious or complex aspects of that issue – especially when there are differing viewpoints.
  • Debrief. After the participants have explored a topic, then use a panel to debrief the audience, leaning more toward learning and application of key takeaways.
  • Shift Energy. Especially if the format of the program is fairly consistent and/or repetitive, a panel discussion can shift the energy, pace, and/or tone of the program – primarily because it IS different than what has gone before!

Too often, I have seen a meeting organizer assemble a panel and forget to tell the panel moderator where they are in the program – and specifically why they chose a panel format to accomplish that objective. So don’t forget to ask your meeting organizer not only when to have a panel discussion but why they are having that panel discussion at that point in the program!

When to Have a Panel Discussion

I was chatting with Event Strategist Devon Montgomery Pasha about when to have a panel discussion – and when not to. (You can listen to the podcast here).

We both agree that panel discussions can be a powerful format for knowledge sharing, attitude shifting, and building connections. However, to create a truly impactful panel discussion, we need to ask some critical questions FIRST.

Ask “Why Should You Have a Panel Discussion?”

Just because you can have a panel discussion doesn’t mean you should! Pasha emphasizes the importance of questioning the purpose behind the panel – the “why” you want to have a panel discussion. “If it’s a hot button topic or a topic that has multiple perspectives, that is an opportunity to have a panel…to compare, to contrast, to debate in a lively way.”

Ask “What Behavioral Change Are You Seeking?”

Pasha notes that panel discussions can serve three types of learning: knowledge learning, attitude learning, and people learning. Depending on your objectives, you might choose one or a combination of these learning styles. Knowledge learning involves presenting different perspectives on a topic. Attitude learning aims to shift participants’ attitudes, while people learning introduces attendees to interesting individuals with unique backgrounds. Pasha continues, “If you can’t answer that question, then let’s step back and think about the behavior change goals:

  • Whose behavior is essential to change with this event?
  • Who is essential that we delight with this event?
  • Does a panel fit the criteria to change that behavior?
  • What’s the difference between where they are and where they are after the panel: the idea knowledge, exchange of attitude, change of people learning?

Once you decide the panel is an effective meeting format, Pasha suggests a more dynamic approach to panel design, breaking away from the traditional format and offering opportunities for audience interaction. She emphasizes the importance of creating a sense of community and belonging among the participants – even before the panel starts! Another way is to use technology tools to crowdsource questions and encourage the audience to participate actively in the discussion.

Panel discussions are a valuable format for events when used thoughtfully and creatively. By asking “why” and considering the type of learning you want to facilitate, you can ensure your panel discussions are powerful and engaging. Don’t be afraid to challenge traditional formats and focus on creating meaningful connections and lasting impact.

Related Articles

How to Organize a Panel Discussion

Research Every Panel Moderator Must Do Before a Panel Discussion

Reasons to Say No to an Offer to Moderate a Panel Discussion

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Panel Discussion

For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series or our other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.

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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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