These days we don’t like to be talked at; broadcast is out and interactivity is in. At Zeetings we are always looking for ways that we can help you make your presentations more interactive; a panel discussion is a great way achieve this. To help, we have put together a few tips for hosting a panel discussion.
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The Panel – They say that a crab cake is only as good as the crab you put into it, and so it goes with a panel discussion. What is the right panel size? There is no rule. In order to allow each panelist to engage in the discussion at depth, and to interact with the other panelist efficiently, 3 to 4 is about right. That means you probably need to invite 5 or 6 as you need to assume you may loose 1 or 2 panelists due to other commitments. Better to have too many panelists than the embarrassment of a panel of 1. The selection of panelists will also relate to the topic at hand. A panel discussion will usually be part of a larger event and the topic should be relevant to the audience at that event. It works to pick a topic that is in some way controversial and better discussed than presented, due to the different perspectives on this topic. A panel where all panelists agree with each other all the time can be boring for the audience, so creating a discussion with some heat can really liven the atmostphere.
Preparation – It’s important that the panel understands the audience, the topic under discussion, and the potential perspectives of the other panelists before they arrive at the event. This will give them context and allow them time to prepare their thoughts. A group conference call where this information is discussed is a good idea.
Set the Stage – Like any presentation it’s important to get onsite well before the panel start time and assess the room. The layout of the panel is very important. It’s typical for an audio visual crew to setup a long table for the panel. This layout is not recommended. It’s very difficult to engage with someone down the other end of the table, craning the neck to address them around the other panelists. Bar stools, or sofa chairs, setup in a semi circle facing the audience, optimizes communication between panelists and the audience. If you have ever organised a dinner party you know that seating assignments are important. Don’t put opposing teams at opposite ends: mix it up. Although it may not be possible, it’s a good idea to give each presenter their own microphone; this will help facilitate a lively debate: handing around a single mic will slow the conversation.
Show time – The job of the moderator, or MC, is important, so make sure you select someone who is a good conversationalist, can think quickly on their feet, and is able bring out the best in people. The MC should set the scene by taking a few minutes introducing the topic, framing the key issues, and then introduce the panel, highlighting their individual perspectives on the issue. The MC should get the ball rolling by having a pre-planned question ready for one, or all of the panel members.
As the conversation progresses, be careful not to let one panelist monopolise the conversation, or let other panelist remain silent. Panelists are just human, and despite being well versed on topics, may be shy. It’s the MC’s job to promote the free flow of discussion. This can be done by encouraging panelists for more in-depth perspectives, and teeing up an dialog between specific panelists. If the conversation is lagging it’s the MC job to keep the pace moving, and a few pre-prepared questions or comments can reboot a flagging conversation. Another technique is to open it up to the crowd. An audience will always be more engaged if they feel their issues and concerns are being addressed. This can be achieved by crowdsourcing questions from the audience, and presenting the most popular questions to the panel.
As the clock winds down the MC should allow time for the panelists to each close out their argument or position. Thanking the panel, and the audience, the MC should summarise the key issues, and provide an ongoing forum where the discussion amongst the group can continue. This might be either an opportunity to meet with the panelists afterwards, or directing the audience to an online forum.
Hopefully you can use some of these tips to improve your next panel.
Image Credit: Monika Flueckiger