Planning a panel that pops

January 23, 2014

Picture this: You are at a conference and sitting in a panel session and get that sinking feeling that you chose the wrong session. Your first signal is the lengthy introductions given by the moderator for each panelist, each taken verbatim from the bios in your conference packet. Then each panel member talks for several minutes, leaving little time for questions. The remaining minutes are taken up by the moderator, who asks a few disjointed questions before time’s up, no time for audience questions.

Let’s face it: Panels are hard. Harder than solo presentations where the presenter is in near complete control of the session. But with the right preparation and design, panels can be truly enlightening and informative sessions. Here are some tips to help you plan a panel that pops!

Pick the right people.
We all know that some people are just better at presenting in front of an audience than others.  When you have two or three people up in front of a room, the contrast between great presenter and mediocre presenter is even more stark. Try to pick people that have good presentation styles, and can present with similar levels of enthusiasm, otherwise you risk having one panel member completely dominate the others, or make the others look “bad.”

Prepare, yourself.
Set aside the necessary time to prepare for the panel yourself. This may involve reading books or articles, or watching videos by your panelists. It can also include soliciting input from your intended audience. You may want to invite people to submit their own ideas for questions before the panel via social media, or email directly to you. While you don’t need to be bound by it, or read it like a script, its a good idea to have your questions written down, as well as your introduction. Your job as moderator is to deliver valuable information to your audience by way of your panelists.

Plan for time to introduce your panel members to each other.
If you are organizing a panel of people who don’t know each other, or work together, build in plenty of time into your planning process to convene your panel participants before the panel itself. Conference calls, google hangouts, or in-person meetings if possible, are a great way to help lay the foundation for a good panel.

Schedule at least one call for all of your panel members to talk about the goals of the panel and the structure of the presentation (read: have each speaker build on to the prior speaker’s comments). There is nothing wrong with letting your panelists know the kinds of questions you plan to ask of them, or the particular topics you would like them to address. This will make everyone look more prepared and provide a better experience for your audience. Make sure all your panelists understand the audience they will be presenting to, as well as the format and time constraints of the panel.

Don’t waste time with boilerplate introductions.
Your audience can read the bios of the panel participants more efficiently than you can, so don’t waste valuable time that your panelists could be interacting with each other, or providing insightful information to your audience by reading their bios. Use introduction time to set context and to explain why each person is on this panel.

Foster discussion between panel members, draw comparisons and contrasts between their work. Rather than having three people who all do the same thing in the same way, pick people whose work, styles or insights will provide contrast to each other (not conflict, unless you are going for the crossfire style) that will highlight their work, or knowledge and the topic at hand.

Allow panel members to ask questions of each other.
Before opening the floor to questions for the audience, give the panel members time to ask questions of each other. If you’ve laid the proper groundwork, your panelists will know that they are going to have this opportunity, and should come prepared with at least one question for their fellow panelists, though the discourse of the panel may yield other new and interesting questions.

Keep an eye on your audience.
While your panelists are answering questions or making remarks be sure to watch your audience (while listening to your panelists of course). This will give you a sense of whether the audience is staying engaged, or tuning out and allow you to adjust the questions or direct the conversation accordingly.

Reserve time for audience questions, in the form of questions.
At the start of the panel, when you tell the audience what they can expect, be sure to let them know that there will be some number of minutes reserved for questions at the end. Also remind your audience to ask their questions in the form of questions out of respect for the panelists and the audience. Depending on the size of the audience, you may want to have an assistant gather questions on note cards, or through social media like twitter so that you can moderate those questions. Doing so will allow you to continue the conversation beyond the panel. Since 10 or 15 minutes of Q&A often only affords three to five questions and answers, maybe less, collecting questions can allow you to ask and answer them of your panelists by email, google hangout, or blog post.

  • It should go without saying that if you slides for each panelists, it will be better if they are all on one computer and you should give each panelist the opportunity to review her slides on that computer before the panel starts.
  • Test all microphones and make sure the panelists have the opportunity to test the microphones. There is nothing worse that screeching feedback to get your audience’s attention!
  • Make sure everyone has water.

We don’t hold a monopoly on this advice. Others have written about this topic before, and, unfortunately, bad panels still happen, but if we all follow these steps and share this advice with others, we can prevent bad panel presentations!

More tips on planning a great panel

Gregory Heller