I attended four panel discussions over the course of last week, between Denver Startup Week and a Symposium on Denver Design and Zoning, both wonderful events! I was reminded that panel discussions have great potential for good learning and inspiration, but also can be disappointing if not planned for and moderated well. Reflecting on my experience as a Learning and Development Manager and Group Facilitator, I’ve created a list of best practices for moderating an effective panel of speakers on any topic. Here you go!
1. Have a theme and objectives that are clear to everyone
You have a limited period of time (90 minutes is recommended) and 4-5 (most likely opinionated) speakers. Your challenge is to keep the focus clear and let the discussion build upon itself in a way that is dynamic, reveals various perspectives, and leaves your participants with some key takeaways on the subject you advertised. Choose a topic that is specific enough to engage your listener in the promised learning objectives and broad enough that your group of panelists can each talk meaningfully about it. For instance “Diversity in the Workplace” is too broad to be effective. And runs the risk of disappointing/offending your attendees when they ask about hiring for neural diversity and a panelist is only prepared to speak on “the basics of diversity, you know gender and race…” (actually happened). A good example of a panel is “All Together Now: Managing Remote Employees and Offices”—a precise, meaty topic relevant for many involved with a modern business or non-profit, with enough subtopics and diverse viewpoints to keep it engaging.
2. Prepare the panelists
Speak with them and then follow up with an email to create agreements and clear expectations. Make the topic and its scope (what will be covered and what will not) crystal clear. Give them a list of questions they can expect you to ask and some you think the audience might ask. Set up your role as Moderator, including timekeeping and asking forgiveness ahead of time for redirecting or cutting off any tangents that go on too long. Hopefully they will thank you for caring enough about the outcome to provide this clear structure.
3. Take care of your panelists
Your experts are likely volunteering their time. Make sure to thank them sincerely— before, during and after the event. Give a little space for them to promote a newly published book, open job positions, or upcoming event; you can include a one-liner on your website, handout or let them include it in their summary remarks. And make sure to provide them each with a bottle of water, notepad, and pen at the table!
4. Prioritize storytelling
Here is one scenario I’ve witnessed— you choose fabulous, well-informed speakers who have been in their field for decades. You excitedly ask them your first question! And then….each one of them completely ignores your question in favor of talking about what they want to talk about. Which invariably has to do with what they are working on, or are most proud of, or other efforts to connect and gain credibility. So plan for that and use it to your advantage. You have to give people permission to tell their story— if they are truly experts they have amazing stories and that’s what you have brought them here to tell. So first question should be a creative way to introduce themselves. Ask them to start with their name and role, quickly share what they do. And then here are some options for some opening questions to help them “land” in the space and feel seen and heard, depending on the context:
“What is the top piece of advice you tell people you mentor about this subject?”
“Please share the story of a (panel relevant) project or program you are most proud of.”
“Tell us about a significant learning experience you’ve had in this field? A humbling moment, or constructive feedback from a Mentor or Manager that made all the difference. Or perhaps a challenge that you are now thankful for.”
“Tell us about the unique view/passion/priorities you bring to this topic based on your background in the field.”
5. Own your role as the Moderator
It’s no small feat. Panels can go badly. And it’s your job to keep this one moving along successfully. You may have some strong personalities come out, either in the audience or on your panel. Be prepared to think quickly on your feet, be comfortable with conflicting opinions and if the audience asks irrelevant or accusatory questions, redirect. If panelists or audience members use terms that are not widely known, take the time to define them or ask a panelist to do so. I went to a panel on “Utopian Workplaces” and that term had still not been defined or mentioned an hour in. That was frustrating as a participant, because I was attracted by the provocative name and thought I might hear something new. Keep your promises and take responsibility for delivering.
In closing, panel discussions have great potential. Especially when used in concert with other forms like workshops, keynotes and networking. Use them purposefully to examine a specific topic that people care about from various angles. Draw out the stories, expertise and humor of your panelists and you’ve done your job as a Moderator! Good luck and please do share your advice in the comments below and share this post with a colleague before their next panel gig!
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I am a coach, facilitator and program director in Denver, Colorado. I bring a high-performance mindset from 18 years leading in global corporations, startups, non-profits and Higher Ed. I’ve also honed skills in emotional intelligence and practical spirituality through training with ICF, Shadow Work®, Insights Discovery and motherhood. If you’re ready to do powerful inner work, and also get tangible results in your external environment, please follow my blog and reach out to talk about coaching!
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