10 Tips to Improve Panel Discussions

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Although panel discussions are ubiquitous at meetings, Kristin Arnold, MBA, CPF, CSP thinks they could be more inspired. The Scottsdale, Arizona-based consultant, facilitator, public speaker and founder of Quality Process Consultants, Inc. published Powerful Panels: A Step-By-Step Guide to Moderating Lively and Informative Panel Discussions, in 2013. Around the same time she also launched a survey about the subject, receiving 539 responses. Sixty-seven percent of respondents were meeting planners, speakers or thought leaders; 48 percent self-identified as executives and managers who regularly attend conferences and conventions. Nearly all (98 percent) said they had attended a panel discussion in the past year.

Arnold was surprised to discover that 63 percent of survey respondents rated the typical panel discussion format as okay, poor or very poor, while just 37 percent viewed it as good or great.

“Considering panels are a pervasive meeting format that aren’t going to go away anytime soon, this indicates that there is much room for improvement,” Arnold says.

Her insightful 27-page report, which can be downloaded for free, strategically examines the subject.

Arnold notes that planners like panel discussions because they are easy to produce. “The meeting planner picks the topic, finds a moderator and selects the panelists. Then the planner doesn’t have to worry about it; it’s a self-contained conversation. That time slot has been filled so the planner can focus on the more important aspects of the conference,” she says.

Arnold, who laments that audiences generally walk into panel discussions with low expectations, thinks meeting planners can make panel discussions more effective. She offers the following suggestions.

10 Tips to Improve Panel Discussions

1. Carefully choose moderators and panelists. Skilled moderators bring out the best in panelists. “Unfortunately, moderators and panelists are often selected for political reasons and not necessarily for their talents,” Arnold says. She warns planners to vet moderators in advance, making sure they are knowledgeable about the industry. In her survey, 72 percent of respondents said what they find most frustrating about panel discussions are moderators who don’t ask good questions, talk too long or drone on with lengthy introductions.

2. Interesting and articulate panelists are also important. Build a diverse panel in terms of gender, age, background and viewpoint. Keep the panel to four participants or less, and make sure they are prepared. Two-thirds (66 percent) of survey respondents said what they dislike most are panelists who wander off topic, dominate the conversation or shamelessly promote themselves.

3. Get rid of the long, draped table. Arnold believes it creates a barrier between panelists and the audience. She recommends seating speakers in a shallow semi-circle with a small cocktail table in front or to the side. The can sit in director chairs, which are stylish and can be branded with the company logo or the speakers’ names.

4. Stress preparation. The moderator and panelists must do more than simply show up. The moderator should develop an agenda and prepare welcoming remarks, introductions and some initial questions. Panelists should do background research on the topic, and formulate their key messages and talking points.

5. Formal rehearsals are unnecessary; however the moderator should brief panelists on the process and ground rules for the session. Spontaneity will be lost if the discussion is rehearsed in advance.

6. Structure the discussion to be more like a conversation. Emphasize that the panel should not be a series of presentations, but instead a lively discussion among experts sharing their thoughts and opinions.

7. Limit the number of slides. Use them only to grab audience attention or make an abstract concept more understandable. Make detailed information available in a web link or printed handout.

8. Engage the audience early. Create a catchy title for the event, and make sure the topic is trendy and fun. Create a buzz, even before the event. Use email marketing or social media to ask attendees to submit three questions they would like to hear discussed.

9. Encourage participation. Don’t wait for a Q&A at the end of the presentation to engage the audience. Today’s attendees want to participate. Use technological tools to encourage participation.

10. Make it entertaining. People today have short attention spans. Every six minutes, do something interactive to stimulate the audience, such as a poll or a game.