I’ve participated in plenty of panels – both as a panelist and moderator – and have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of panel discussions.

When done well, a panel discussion becomes a smoothly flowing, engaging and natural discussion; a true conversation between the panelists and the audience. When managed poorly however, panel discussions can be stilted and shallow. Like many things in life, it’s all about the preparation.

As a moderator, you want to keep the discussion flowing and on topic. You should help the audience as well as the panelists feel at ease. And you’ll need to listen carefully and improvise where needed. This guide will help you ensure your panel goes off without a hitch.

Learn about the panelists

First, take the time to understand who your panelists are, why they’re on the panel, and what they want to get out of it. Either set up a call with each panelist beforehand, or connect with them through email.

Check that they know the background of the event and the audience, the topic of the panel, who you are and who their fellow panelists are. Check them out on LinkedIn, Twitter and their company or personal website. Make sure you know how to correctly pronounce their name and their company name, and how they want to be introduced.

They’ll each have their own reasons for agreeing to be on the panel. Ensure you understand what they want to get out of it, and any key messages they want to get across (or questions they’d like to be asked).

If you want to film the panel and / or use the content in any way after the event, check with each panelist they’re comfortable with this, and ideally ask them to sign a model release waiver.

Prepare the outline

Prepare the structure of the panel session thoroughly. Panel discussions often look totally spontaneous, but good ones rarely are. Typically panels should run to around 45 minutes, and the outline should be something like:

  • Introduce yourself.
  • Introduce the topic and why it’s important.
  • Cover off any housekeeping items and technology you’ll be using that the audience need to know about (such as Sli.do for audience questions).
  • Introduce the panelists. Don’t let them introduce themselves as some people may have a tendency to ramble on which derails the whole panel immediately. Equally don’t read out their whole career history and CV – be brief, and be 100% sure you have their name and company name correct.
  • Pre-prepared questions from you. Ensure you cover the areas each panelist wants to be asked about, plus any other key topics. The extent to which you map out all the questions will depend on your comfort with the topic and how structured you like to be, but you should at a minimum have an overall flow and narrative in mind. Have more questions than you think you’ll need.
  • Brief your panelists to avoid the words ‘it depends’ wherever possible. Audiences are in the room to hear answers, not prevarications. You want panelists with opinions and answers, which ‘it depends’ can avoid. If they have to use that, ask them to follow-up with a specific example too.
  • You should have about 15 minutes for audience Q&A in a 45 minute panel. Longer and there’s a risk the questions will dry up; less and the audience could be frustrated that the ‘interactive discussion’ isn’t very interactive.

On the day

If possible, get all the panelists together shortly before the panel, introduce them to each other and get them talking. This will break the ice and help the discussion flow more naturally, as well as help them network with each other. Talk them through the rough structure you plan to follow, but actively encourage them to speak out of turn and build on each other’s answers, this is how a natural conversion is built.

Check the physical setup and space. Are there enough chairs and microphones? Are the panelists happy with the way the mics work? Has there been a sound check with the AV company? Is there water for everyone? Will you have roving mics for the audience, and if so who is managing these?

No one should be using any powerpoint slides. Doing so totally destroys conversational flow, and will use up a huge amount of time. Panel discussions should never mean multiple short presentations bundled together.

However, you should have one power point slide behind the panelists, with a giant hashtag encouraging people to share their key take-aways on social media, and with each of the panelists photo and name on there.

Make sure you sit beside the panelists, in the same type of chair they are using. Sit at one end of the panel rather than in the middle, since this makes it easier for the panelists to interact with each other. The ideal setup uses sofas or comfortable chairs (not stools) arranged in a line or shallow curve, with you sitting at one end. Seat the panelists in the same order they’re listed on the background to avoid confusion.

During the panel

After introductions, begin with a broad or easy question and make sure you ask each panelist specifically for their answers on this first question. During the remainder of the panel, how much you’ll need to ask panelists to answer individually will depend on how vocal they each are. Do try to ensure though that everyone gets roughly equal airtime.

Don’t feel the need to have every panelist answer every question; this takes too long and can seem forced. One or two panelist answers to each question is fine. Then, unless other panelists are desperate to contribute, move on to the next question. You can also encourage the panelists to react to and build on each other’s answers.

It’s nice to involve the audience early on as it encourages participation and engagement. An easy way to do this is to ask, after the introductions, “Now that you know who we are, I’d love to understand who’s in the audience. Does anyone want to tell us who they are and where they work?”  Then take 3-4 answers – this will also help you and the panel understand the makeup of the audience, so they can tailor their answers accordingly. Alternatively you can ask for a show of hands “Who works in tech?”, “Who’s an entrepreneur” etc.

Consider using audience Q&A tools such as Sli.do.  This can be a great way to increase audience involvement. Like any technology, thoroughly familiarise yourself with it beforehand.

If you don’t have roving mics for the audience Q&A, make sure you repeat the question that’s being asked, “The question was…” Otherwise the rest of the audience won’t be able to hear it.

Once you’re nearing the end of time for audience Q&A, don’t stop abruptly. Signal the end by saying “we’ve got time for one more question”. Remember to thank your panelists and communicate any follow up information, e.g. if the panelists are available to speak afterwards, where people can get more info, etc.

Do ensure you end on time. Ideally have someone hold up signs for ‘5 minutes remaining’, ‘1 minute remaining’. Otherwise, keep your watch or phone where you can easily see it, without making it obvious that you’re checking the time.

Lastly, don’t forget to thank the panelists, the audience, and the organisers of the event.

What are your top tips for moderating a panel properly?

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