Are you looking for a dynamic and engaging way to explore new ideas and perspectives? Panel discussions might be just what you need! These events bring together experts from various fields to discuss a specific topic, offering a wealth of knowledge and insights. However, with so many event formats out there, it can be difficult to know which one is the right fit for you.
So, whether you're a seasoned event planner or simply curious about new ways to learn, you'll answer the following questions about panel discussions in this blog post:
- How a panel discussion differs from other events
- How to identify the central topic and objectives of a panel discussion
- How to select diverse and knowledgeable panelists
- How to create a clear agenda for a panel discussion
- How to moderate and manage a panel discussion
- How to encourage audience participation in a panel discussion
- How to gather and analyze feedback for better panel discussions
What is a panel discussion?
A panel discussion is a structured conversation that brings together multiple experts or stakeholders to explore a specific topic, share their perspectives, and engage in lively discourse. This format is highly effective in events, as it allows for a variety of viewpoints to be presented, fostering a rich and informative experience for the audience.
Panel discussions complement keynote speeches and other presentation-based sessions. They offer a platform for engaging conversations among multiple experts or stakeholders. Plus, they encourage audience participation through Q&A sessions, making attendees feel more involved and gaining a deeper understanding of the topic.
For example, a tech conference could host a panel discussion on artificial intelligence. Experts from different fields could share their insights, exploring ethics, spirituality, and societal impact. Encouraging discussions and Q&A sessions provide a comprehensive understanding to the audience and contribute to the conference's success.
How to run a successful panel discussion
Stanford Business School emphasizes that effective panel discussions require strong preparation, with customization, concrete details, and connectivity being crucial factors.
To make the most of panel discussions, event planners should establish a clear purpose, select and prepare panelists carefully, and encourage audience engagement for a well-rounded and enlightening experience.
Here are 6 things you can do to ensure your panel discussions reach their full potential:
1. Define the purpose of the panel discussion
The first step to ensure a successful panel discussion is to establish a clear purpose. This means identifying the objectives of the panel discussion and defining what you want to achieve. Without a clear purpose, it'll be difficult to identify the right panelists or structure the discussion in a way that meets your objectives.
For example, a company's panel discussion on workplace diversity and inclusion aims to enhance employees' awareness of diversity and inclusion's significance, offer practical strategies for creating an inclusive culture, and facilitate engagement.
Experts in diversity and inclusion share their experiences and insights, discussing topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, and the benefits of diverse perspectives with the audience. The panel's ultimate objective is to foster a more inclusive and welcoming workplace environment for all employees.
To define the purpose of your panel discussion, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What is the main topic or theme that we want to cover?
- What are the key issues or questions we want to explore?
- What is the goal of the panel discussion? Is it to educate the audience, spark conversation or debate, share diverse perspectives, or inspire action?
- Who is our target audience? What do they want to learn or gain from the panel discussion?
- What are the key takeaways we want the audience to leave with?
You can collect this information by crowd-sourcing it before the event itself—use an online Q&A tool to ask your audience what they’d like answered during the panel and incorporate them into the discussion. Once you have a clear understanding of your purpose, you can move on to selecting the panelists and structuring the discussion in a way that meets your objectives.
2. Choose panelists with diverse perspectives and expertise
With the topic in hand, carefully select and prepare panelists to ensure that they deliver valuable insights and engage in a productive discussion.
For example, an event planner organizing a panel discussion on sustainable fashion chooses diverse panelists, including a sustainable designer, industry consultant, advocacy group rep, and journalist. They provide different perspectives on topics like environmental impact, consumer role, and integrating sustainability into the industry.
Here are some tips for selecting and preparing panelists for a productive discussion:
- Shortlist the panelists. Select experts with knowledge on the topic and diverse backgrounds to bring unique insights to the discussion.
- Do your research. Before inviting panelists, research their credentials and expertise to ensure the discussion is informative and relevant.
- Set clear expectations. Provide panelists with clear guidelines and expectations for the discussion, including the topic, format, and desired outcomes.
- Hold a pre-panel discussion. Schedule a pre-panel discussion to allow panelists to discuss the topic and get to know each other. This will help ensure they are prepared and can engage productively.
- Consider rehearsals. Depending on the complexity and experience level of the panelists, consider holding a rehearsal session to help them feel comfortable with the format and effectively deliver their insights.
The ideal number of panelists is between 3 to 5. Too few, and the discussion may as well just be an interview. Too many, and the dialogue could become too cumbersome to manage.
3. Structure the discussion for focus and productivity
When it comes to designing a panel discussion, aim for an agenda that allows for flexibility while still keeping it focused and productive. A structured discussion allows the panelists to address key points productively and engagingly. However, a structure that is too rigid can stifle creativity and prevent organic conversation.
A non-profit, for example, hosts a panel discussion on mental health in the workplace, featuring research findings, mental health experts, a mental health advocacy group representative, and an HR professional. The structured format encourages focus and productivity, while also engaging the audience through Q&A and interactive tools.
To help you strike a balance between flexibility and productivity, consider the following tips:
- Determine the format. Will the discussion be a Q&A session or a more free-flowing conversation? Will panelists be given specific time limits for speaking or will they be able to speak at will? Consider the goals of the panel discussion and tailor the format accordingly.
- Outline key discussion points. Before the panel discussion, outline the key discussion points that the panelists will address. This can help to keep the conversation focused and prevent it from veering off-topic. However, allow for flexibility within the outline to allow for spontaneous discussion and organic conversation.
- Provide context. Ensure that the panelists and the audience have a clear understanding of the context surrounding the topic. Providing relevant background information and context can help to keep the conversation productive and informative.
4. Moderate the discussion for focus and productivity
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. Likewise, a bad moderator can turn an otherwise engaging conversation into a snooze fest. Look for good moderator traits like proactiveness, good listening skills, and clarity.
Here are some duties that moderators should perform during a panel discussion:
- Manage the time and keep the conversation moving forward
- Prevent any one or two panelists from dominating the discussion
- Moderate panelists by steering them on-topic and refocusing if needed
- Clarify jargon, terminology, and concepts that the audience may not be familiar with
- Use paraphrasing or bridging to engage the audience and highlight takeaways
- Facilitate Q&A sessions
An example of this could be a panel discussion hosted by a university on the topic of education in a post-pandemic world. The moderator leads a productive discussion by inviting panelists to share their viewpoints on pandemic challenges and opportunities, and ways to improve the education system.
5. Encourage audience engagement and interaction
Making your panel discussions audience-focused is key to keeping them engaging and informative. You can encourage audience participation by finding ways to involve them in the discussion, such as through live polls or Q&A sessions.
To start, consider opening with a poll to set the context for the discussion. For instance, if the topic is the future of sustainable energy, you could run a multiple-choice poll at the beginning to gauge how much they would be willing to pay for energy from renewable sources. This provides a starting point for the panelists to comment on and helps establish a common ground for the discussion.
Live polls can also be used in other ways to promote audience interaction, such as breaking the ice, gathering sentiment, or crowdsourcing key takeaways. However, for larger audiences, relying on who raises their hands first to collect and address questions may not be effective for stimulating meaningful discussion.
To encourage participation, a more effective approach is to have the audience submit questions through a Q&A platform and then have the rest of the audience vote on which questions they want to be answered. This approach increases engagement, combats the "shy audience" problem, and creates a seamless experience for the audience.
6. Evaluate the success of the panel discussion
Gather feedback from the panel discussion
You should evaluate the success of your panel discussion to identify areas for improvement in future events. To gather feedback from both panelists and attendees, you can use various methods such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Focus on gathering feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the discussion to identify areas of improvement.
It's essential to gather feedback from both panelists and attendees as they may have different perspectives on the event. Panelists may provide feedback on the quality of the discussion and the effectiveness of the moderation, while attendees may provide feedback on the level of engagement and relevance of the discussion to their needs.
For example, a grassroots advocacy group held a panel discussion on the effects of climate change on local agriculture, featuring farmers, climate scientists, and policymakers. The panelists appreciated the spirited exchanges between experts, while attendees suggested more community-led solutions to climate change.
Track key performance indicators
Along with gathering feedback, you should track key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate the success of the panel discussion. These metrics could include attendance numbers, engagement metrics, and audience satisfaction ratings, helping you measure the success of the panel discussion against your goals and objectives.
A marketing company, for instance, organized a panel discussion on the future of AI marketing, featuring social media influencers and marketing experts. The event had a high attendance rate, with over 80% of registered attendees showing up, a high audience satisfaction rate, and the event hashtag was trending wildly on Twitter!
Unlock the power of panel discussions now
You can make your panel discussions engaging and informative by following these tips. Carefully select and prepare your panelists, create an audience-focused structure, facilitate audience engagement, and evaluate the success of the discussion. By doing so, you can ensure a well-rounded and enlightening experience for all involved, and make your next panel discussion a success!