Panel discussions are the hallmark of modern conferences and events, even virtual ones. The purpose of a panel discussion is to spark conversation between a group of experts or industry and thought leaders, so that the audience can learn from their discourse and interaction.
The panel discussion format is usually the same: a few subject matter experts gather on stage or in front of the camera to discuss a specific topic and offer differing perspectives. The panellists share facts or personal experiences, express opinions, and answer audience questions. There is always a moderator to keep the momentum going, facilitate the discussion, and manage questions from the audience.
But depending on how they’re executed, panel discussions can be memorable and engaging, or boring and unremarkable.
Ideally, a panel discussion should:
- Be thought-provoking and insightful
- Present diverse perspectives on an issue
- Educate, inspire, and spark the audience’s curiosity
Most importantly, a panel discussion should NOT be:
- A series of presentations by the panellists
- Just a Q&A session with the audience
- A repetition of the same points from different panellists
- An unstructured discussion that careens off topic
How to run a successful panel discussion
According to the Stanford Business School, “the best panel discussions are customised, concrete, and connected”, and all these factors hinge on strong preparation.
Here’s what you can do to ensure your panel discussions live up to their potential:
1. Pin down your purpose
Everything stems from your purpose. Ask yourself what value you’re trying to create or what goal you hope to achieve with your panel discussion.
Your purpose could be anything from exploring differences in opinions and bringing a diversity of perspectives to the table, to showcasing the benefits of a product or service, to providing updates on the latest industry trends. It can even be to provide some entertainment or showcase your brand’s personality.
Once you have your purpose, you’ll be able to determine the format and tone of the panel discussion. Is it more casual and entertaining like a relaxed chat, or more sober like an industry debate?
Pinning down your purpose requires that you know your audience. What topics do they care about? What biases or assumptions might they have? What are their biggest concerns or challenges at the moment?
Only by knowing your audience can you tailor the content of your panel discussion – and, by extension, your event – to fit their needs.
2. Choose the right panellists
Based on the topic of your panel discussion, choose your speakers such that they’ll be able to cover diverse angles and offer unique perspectives – if your speakers are too similar in profile and experiences, it’s unlikely the conversation will be very interesting to listen to.
Be sure to research your panellists to ensure they have the right expertise to be contributing to your panel discussion topic. You can even check out their past speaking engagements to see if they have the personality and confidence to capture the audience’s attention.
The ideal number of panellists is between 3 to 5. Too few, and the discussion may as well just be an interview. Too many, and to dialogue could become too cumbersome to manage.
3. Prep your panellists
Successful panels discussions seem free-form and effortless, but there’s actually a lot of prep work that goes into them.
In addition to giving panellists the discussion questions beforehand, another key thing you can do as an event planner is to inform them on the audience. Beyond the basic like ages and jobs, panellists would benefit from audience information like:
- What are their biggest pain points and challenges right now?
- What do they hope to gain from listening to the discussion?
- What actionable insights can they benefit from?
Collect this information by crowd-sourcing it before the event itself – use an online question collecting tool (like ours!) to ask your audience what they’d like answered during the panel and incorporate them into the discussion.
With more audience information, panellists will be able to use the right use cases or anecdotes to tailor their answers for maximum relatability, impact, and resonance.
4. Have a strong moderator
Moderators play a significant role in the success of a panel discussion. A good moderator can elevate a simple sharing session to an active and fascinating dialogue. A bad moderator can turn an otherwise engaging conversation into a snooze fest.
Moderators fulfil a multitude of purposes, including:
- Managing the time and keeping the conversation moving forward
- Preventing any one or two panellists from dominating the discussion
- Steering panellists in the right direction and reigning things in if the discussion gets too off topic
- Clarifying jargon, terminology, and concepts that the audience may not be familiar with
- Paraphrasing or bridging concepts to highlight key takeaways and help the audience connect with the conversation on stage
- Facilitating Q&A sessions
The qualities of a great moderator include proactiveness, good listening skills, and clarity.
5. Engage the audience
The best panel discussions are audience-focused. In addition to asking panellists to make their information more relatable, event planners should also find ways to get audiences to participate in the discussion, whether that’s through live polls or Q&A.
One simple but impactful thing you can do is to open with a poll to set context for the discussion—if your panel is about SEO tools, you can run a multiple-choice poll (with real-time results) at the start to see how many people in the audience currently pay or would pay for SEO tools, and then use that as a jumping-off point for the panellists to comment on.
There are lots of other ways to use live polls to drive audience interaction at your next panel discussion, including breaking the ice, gathering sentiment, or crowdsourcing key takeaways. But running an engaging panel discussion gets trickier for larger audiences, and the traditional who-raises-their-hands-first way of collecting and addressing questions simply isn’t the best way to stimulate meaningful discussion.
A more effective way to get your audience to participate is to have them submit questions through a Q&A platform, and have the rest of the audience vote on which questions they want answered. Having the audience submit their questions digitally also helps combat the “shy audience” problem, creates a more seamless audience experience, and increases engagement.
Panel discussions are amazing for providing a variety of viewpoints through lively discourse, and are a great complement to keynotes and other presentation-based sessions at events. But if event planners want to make the most of them, they’ll need to ensure there is a clear purpose and outline for the discussion, that their panellists have been properly prepped, and that the audience stays connected to the conversation.