There is a point in every event planning process when someone says: “Let’s just do a panel discussion. That will be so much simpler!”
It’s true that panel discussions can be fun, engaging, and high on information value, and yes, they are often easier to develop content for as well. But great panel discussions don’t just come together – they are strategically planned. Let’s look at a few ways to ensure that your panel discussion is a satisfying experience for participants and attendees alike:
Panel moderating is a skill that requires the ability to understand the gist of what a panelist is saying and use it to jump quickly to a related point. A good moderator actively directs the discussion and doesn’t just sit back and let panelists drone on about whatever they want for as long as they want. It takes practice, so you want to have someone who has a few events under her belt.
Event planners often fall into the trap of filling a panel based on who is willing to show up that day. But a strong panel will encompass individuals with a wide variety of life experiences, who also differ with respect to age, gender, ethnicity, and personality/tone. Each individual will have a unique perspective on the topic at hand.
Poll your audience in advance to determine what topics are of greatest interest to them at this time, and the questions they’d like to have answered. Use this information to put together a strategy document for the panel, which includes the purpose, areas of focus, and suggested questions for each panelist. Run your questions by the panelists in advance and encourage them to add their own. Note that a total of 8 questions is fairly standard for a 1-1.5 hour panel, and you should have 1-2 panelists prepared to address each question.
It’s a good idea to have a pre-event call with the moderator and all of the panelists so that everyone can feel comfortable with the event’s flow and the players involved. There is no need to have more than one of these calls, however, and do not ruin the spontaneity of your event by having panelists rehearse their answers.
Background information shared about the moderator and your panelists should take up no longer than 3 minutes of your panel. And please do not allow panelists to introduce themselves. Well meaning as they may be, the next thing you know, you will have spent half your panel hearing about their life stories before you get to the first question.
Instruct your moderator that when you have 10-15 minutes left in the event, even if you have several planned questions left, move to the audience. Many times, this will be the most vibrant and informative part of the discussion, and attendees will leave feeling like their expectations of the event were met.
It’s your moderator’s job to make sure that your panelists are imparting practical information that can be leveraged by attendees right away, but if you sense that your panel is going to be anecdote-heavy or are concerned you won’t have time to get to all of your critical points, have your panelists contribute their best actionable advice to a handout you can provide after the event.