In this article we'll be providing you with a complete guide to panel discussions.
It will look at different panel discussion formats, as well as tips on preparing and hosting a discussion.
The guide will also explore how to choose the right panellists and moderators, and how to keep the audience engaged.
So let's delve in and first look at what a panel discussion is.
What is a Panel Discussion?
Panel discussions are essential to any conference, and we could go as far as saying they’re the pinnacle of all events.
They are perhaps the most interactive of all the sessions, yet can be the most boring if not curated correctly.
Essentially a panel discussion includes:
- A moderator or presenter and a panel of experts from within the specified field.
- Discussing and dissecting the questions with one another.
- Experts sharing their opinions, experience and expertise from various perspectives, in response to questions from the moderator.
Its main purpose? To ignite a discussion or even a debate.
What are the different types of panel discussions?
When you think of a panel discussion, you envision a host and four or so people sitting in a row answering questions and deliberating what the host has asked them. Most of the time, they include an audience who often asks questions too.
These events can either be be provocative, inspiring, debate-led or dull and boring.
The main difference is whether they are insightful and engaging, or dull, with a few experts sharing their opinions without substance. It's the latter that can make the audience easily clock watch.
In terms of style, we mentioned above the typical “look and feel” of a panel, but they can take on any style the event organiser wants.
Although the number of panellists shouldn’t be too large, after all, you don’t want the event to go on for hours to enable everyone to have their say.
Generally, panels usually have between 3-5 experts, with one host.
Regarding the structure of the panel discussion, there are a few ways it can be hosted.
The most common formats of panel discussions are:
Providing a presentation style to a panel discussion will help each expert on the panel with undisturbed time to express their research/views.
This style can follow with an audience Q&A session once the presentation has finished.
Open style panel
For more of a discussion panel format, an open-style panel can facilitate the presenter/moderator to discuss with the panellists; and encourage audience engagement throughout the entire panel.
This style can be more inclusive for all at the discussion, with minimal segregation between presenter/panel/audience.
Bear in mind the presenter will have to be able to encourage the movement of the discussion, so all areas can be covered adequately, and have good time-management skills.
More of a popular style of panel discussion, a Q&A style panel will have the host open the discussion with a brief introduction of themselves, the panellists and the topics that will be covered.
The moderator will then ask questions they’ve already planned for, including questions from the audience. For the finale, there will be a closing summary of the topics discussed and a final word from the panel.
Initial Remarks Panel
Similar to the above Q&A style, the initial remarks panel style will have the panellist introducing themselves and providing their viewpoint on the topic in question.
This is followed by the host’s chosen questions and a Q&A session from the audience, which will fit better into an event that is more limited on time.
To round it off, the host will close the discussion with a summary of what has been discussed.
These are the typical panel styles for in-person panel discussions, but what happens when you go virtual?
Virtual panel discussion
Although virtual panel discussions may seem more notorious now than before, this doesn’t mean you have to shy away from the pre-conceptive ideas of how a panel should be formatted.
Ultimately, these events can be organised in any way, shape or form. Those watching as attendees can still ask questions (depending on the software you use for the event). The attendee can virtually raise their hand, letting the moderator know there is a question from the audience.
If anything, the moderator can have perhaps more control over the time frame for each panellist’s answer and minimise the chance of panellists talking over one another.
From this point of view, a virtual panel discussion could naturally fall into a well-structured event, basing its format on an Initial Remarks Panel or a Structured Panel Discussion.
The only downside to a virtual panel discussion is that you can’t read your audience.
Are they getting into this, are the cogs turning, and are they hungry for more?
It is also far too easy for an attendee of a virtual discussion to become bored, fatigued, or simply log out of the event.
So it’s imperative to keep the discussion going with the audience in mind - keep them engaged and encourage questions from them.
Later in the blog, we’ll take you through some ideas on how to spice up your event.
After all, online virtual events are notorious for so-called “Zoom Fatigue”, making it easy for attendees to either be distracted with something else or facilitate that glazed look of sleepiness.
Problems you wouldn’t face so much with an in-person event.
How to prepare for a panel discussion?
As this can be the pinnacle of any conference, meticulous planning of a panel discussion is crucial.
From choosing the right moderator, the suitable variety of panellists, the correct topic of discussion, preparing the right questions, and everything in between; there is a lot to plan for the perfect execution of a fantastic panel discussion.
But where should preparation start?
Pin down the purpose of the panel discussion (why are you planning this)
You’ll want the panel discussion to focus on a specific topic so it can be truly explored and dissected.
Therefore, work out why you want to host the discussion; what value is it that you’re trying to add?
Is it to gain a new perspective/discuss the latest findings on your topic of choice? Or are you wanting to bring attention to the latest industry updates and trends from experts in the field?
The key to determining the purpose is, of course, knowing your audience. What do they want to know, what are their thoughts on specific topics within your industry, and what challenges are they facing and needing help with?
You probably already know how to find out what your audience wants, but if not, you can always send out a quick form with a few questions asking for their thoughts and opinions.
It is a great way to gain insight into what topics can be covered for the panel discussion, helping you reiterate your event’s purpose, and making the attendees feel more included. It is also an excellent way to get them more interested in the event.
No matter if your discussion is an in-person event or virtual, both will need technology to help it run, so making sure you have the right tech support is crucial.
From microphones to computers and slide shows, event management software such as Zoom, and ticket sales software, a lot of “tech” goes into a panel discussion.
If using a computer at an in-person event, ensure you have all the cables you need, i.e. laptop charger, cable to link up to a projector, and of course, ensure you have a backup of the presentation if you’re using one.
Do a dummy run a couple of days before the event to ensure all microphones and speakers work and will be charged. The computer/laptop can link up to a projector and work. That all lighting is working, you don’t want a panellist or an audience area sitting in darkness.
If the presenter uses a clicker to enable slide changes, ensure it is linked to the computer and works. It is worthwhile also checking the questions the moderator will ask during the test run for due diligence and reducing the chances of any unnecessary surprises on the day.
These may seem like little things, but don’t assume everything will work on the day.
Performing a dummy run will help provide peace of mind and show up anywhere that needs fixing before the event so that everything will work smoothly on the day (hopefully).
If your discussion is virtual, research to find the right platform to host your event and understand how it works from an admin perspective, a panellist, moderator and audience perspective.
Each will have slightly different ways to access and use the software, so you need to understand each element in case there is a problem; you or a colleague may be able to shed some light on fixing the issue.
If you’re using software to host your event, there should be some tech support for you, so if the event does run into difficulty, you can contact the company’s support team.
The company should also demonstrate how to use the software, so you can feel confident in running it leading up to and during the event.
When to include time for discussions and questions with the audience?
This question depends on the style of panel discussion you want to organise.
Traditionally panel discussion would include Q&As at the end of the discussion. However, we now see many including Q&As throughout the presentation via software such as Slido.
These can be at the end of each question put to the panellists.
Or asked throughout the answers the panellists are providing. However, the latter is preferred for a more informal panel discussion.
Of course, in our age of technology, questions don’t have to be asked on the day during the event.
Nowadays, it is preferred for panellists (for a research conference) to provide an outline of their papers/work before the event, so the audience has time to prepare their queries and can send in questions before the event (via email and social media).
This can result in a collective and more rounded Q&A session that the panellist and moderator can be prepared for.
How to host a panel discussion
When hosting a panel discussion, there are many things to consider to ensure you get the right atmosphere and results.
From finding the right panellists and presenter to helping the audience get a great discussion, there is a lot that goes into planning and hosting the discussion.
How to choose the right panellists
Getting the right panel is crucial to the whole event, so careful planning is needed to get the engaging and stimulating conversation you want from your panel.
You do not want to end up with your discussants in a heated debate that could turn into academic warfare!
Think about what each panellist you have in mind can bring to the table and how their opinions and perspectives could affect the discussion and the other panellists’ personalities and views.
You want to create a good mix of experience levels within your panel; for example, you could include half professors and half researchers within the field.
This can be an excellent way to help researchers develop within their field, as well as be able to discuss their opinions with those experts.
It’ll help get a broad range of opinions and perspectives discussed from different areas within a specific field.
Be mindful to ensure the researchers get their chance to speak and are not left behind. Sometimes the focus can gravitate toward the experts only. (Something for the moderator to bear in mind).
Involving guests from various backgrounds, countries, and professions is a fantastic way to get that broad range of perspectives into the discussion, allowing the attendees to gain insight from multiple sources.
How to choose the right moderator
Another crucial factor in the panel discussion is to get the right moderator; some would say the key to a successful panel discussion is the moderator.
Ideally, you want someone who understands the topic but carries a neutral opinion, so there is no natural sway to speak to panellists with the same or similar opinion. They MUST have excellent time management skills too.
After all, they will be in charge of running the event, ensuring everyone has the time to share their expertise, that the audience gets time to ask their questions and leave enough time for the panel to respond.
Plus, they need to keep the discussion flowing, take care not to linger too long on a particular question, and to definitely not talk about themselves and their experience, which is an easy trap to fall into.
The presenter will need to be able to calm any debate that could escalate yet keep the discussion interesting to the audience.
So it really isn’t as simple as asking questions!
A moderator must be confident enough to interrupt speakers politely to move the conversation on and help the panellists become creative with their answers through unorthodox questioning.
They need to:
- To be in a position where they can see all sides of the discussion.
- To know when an answer is going off-topic and to draw the panellist back to the question at hand,
- Potentially re-word questions if necessary.
It’s recommended that moderators have cue cards and even prompts on the day, which is a great way to help the moderator with presenting.
How to engage with the audience?
Will the event be invitation-only? Will it be a smaller, intimate scenario, or can hundreds of people attend?
The size of the attendee list will naturally change the way the engagement with the audience is handled.
If there is a big audience, it might be worth asking attendees to submit their questions to the event admins before the session to answer as many questions as possible. Plus, it means less of an inconvenience on the day by getting the audience members to access a microphone to ask their questions.
The same can be said if hosting a virtual panel discussion too.
A bigger attendance could mean the chat channel is flooded with questions, and if too small, audience members may feel unable to ask questions.
Keeping the conversation exciting, moving and the audience engaged is tricky.
Many factors can contribute to the audience being engaged, including:
- The time of day the panel is being hosted
- The duration of the panel discussion
- Is it in-person or virtual
- Is the audience enjoying what the panel is saying?
So how do you keep them engaged?
Make sure the session flows, and include the audience within the discussion. Whether that’s a Q&A during or after the panellists have finished speaking, make sure the topic of the discussion is audience-focused. Provide them with the information they are looking for.
How to spice up a panel discussion?
Ensuring an organised and well-run discussion is only the first step toward a successful panel. How can it be improved to ensure your event is a fantastic discussion?
Use the technology readily available to everyone - smartphones and social media.
Encourage your audience to engage through social media, run polls on Twitter in real-time to see if the audience agrees with what the panel are saying, and get the moderator to feed this into the discussion.
Create a hashtag so attendees can post and tag the discussion on their social media accounts. This allows their followers to see they are attending your panel discussion and encourage other attendees to interact with them.
This will help encourage the discussion to continue after the event and could provide valuable feedback for you to take on board for your subsequent discussion.
Create an online pop-up quiz that attendees can do online via their phone/tablet, or laptop. There are many quiz sites you can use - this will of course need some pre-discussion preparation.
Creative and thought-provoking questions will help pique interest from both the panel and the audience and, hopefully, keep this discussion flowing and memorable.
Hosting a panel discussion is highly recommended for any conference or as a stand-alone event. It is a fantastic way to hear from those in the know from a particular field.
So remember, if handled correctly, all who leave the event will hopefully feel inspired, more knowledgeable and encouraged to take away the information they have received and apply it to their work. Plus, they’ll want to attend your next one, which is always a bonus!