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What Is a Panel Discussion? (+How to Conduct a Successful One)

September 27, 2019

Every great event planner knows that the key to a successful event is an engaging environment.

When tasked to put together something large-scaled such as a convention or conference, a panel discussion should be one of the first session formats that come to mind.

Panel discussions foster collaboration, new perspectives, and professional growth for any industry.

This article will discuss what exactly a panel discussion is, and how to conduct a successful one with our 6 tips. Let’s get started.

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What is a panel discussion?

A panel discussion is a way to engage industry thought leaders in dialogue regarding relevant topics in their industry while an audience listens. Each panelist will typically have their own differing opinions from the others on the subject matter presented, which makes for a thought-provoking and well-rounded discussion for the audience to learn from and be entertained by.

A moderator leads the discussion by presenting questions to the panelists, ensuring the discussion stays on track, and oftentimes, will pull audience questions for the panelists to answer. Since panels are supposed to be a natural discussion, it's important that the moderator guides the panelists in the right direction to ensure the audience receives the most value.

Panels can take place in a variety of settings that range from casual to formal. Examples of this can be a long rectangular table with each panelist sitting shoulder to shoulder, or the panelist could sit in seats that are angled towards each other on stage, which exudes a much more casual tone and is typically the more favorable option due to the comfort that it provides to not only the panelists but the audience as well. The moderator will usually be facing the panelists near the audience side on a podium.

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How to conduct a successful panel discussion

Now that it’s understood what a panel discussion is and the value they can bring to your conference or convention, let’s discuss the elements you’ll need to ensure it’s successful.

1. Select a thought-provoking topic

The most important piece to remember when choosing your panel topic is that it should have some buzz in the industry, meaning it’s important enough that your panelists will care and have an opinion on it. Make sure that the topic isn’t too general or you will quickly find your discussion veering off course and becoming unfocused.

2. Choose your skillful moderator

Keeping your newly selected topic in mind, it’s time to choose a moderator. Moderators don’t have to be an expert on your chosen topic, but it will definitely help keep your discussion seamless and moving on track. The most important quality you must look for when selecting your moderator is the ability to lead a large group of people. They should be assertive and confident, yet kind and likable.

3. Pick out your panelists

Now it’s time for the fun part! Choose anywhere from three to five people to sit on your panel. Any more than five will create an overpowering dynamic. Have you ever heard the phrase: “too many cooks in the kitchen”? Well, that phrase applies in this case.

You should also conduct thorough research on the people you’re choosing. You’ll want to make sure they are qualified on the topic and have done speaking engagements in the past to ensure they are great presenters. Last but certainly not least, make sure that the people you choose are diverse! This cannot be stressed enough. Make sure your panelists have diverse backgrounds, educations, experiences, and so on. It will make for a much better panel, trust me.

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4. Introduce the moderator to the panelists

It’s a good idea to introduce all of your panel participants before the day of the event. This can be over a meal, a networking event, or even just a casual introduction and mingling. This not only creates a less awkward environment, but it allows everyone to get to know each others’ personalities before they engage with them in front of an audience. This preface will help the conversation flow naturally on stage. For reference, just think about your conversation dynamic with a stranger versus someone you have been getting to know for a little while. This introduction is specifically important for your moderator as well. Your moderator will be able to pick up on traits and tendencies that the panelists have and thus be able to better lead the discussion since he or she knows what to expect.

5. Prep the questions and prompts

If the moderator you've selected is a topic expert, you will want to collaborate with him or her on the questions. Make sure they are open-ended and have specific elements of each panelist's background so they are able to excitedly answer. Make sure you don’t favor one panelist over the others. Make sure the questions are a level playing field where everyone feels that they can provide value to the discussion.

6. Set up the room properly

Remember what we discussed previously regarding the formality of the room set up? Make sure the room arranged in a way that encourages every member to participate, even the audience. This could mean making the seats in the audience close to the panelists and encouraging people to sit there, or you could ask the panelists what would make them most comfortable. Angle their seats according to this and accommodate to them.

Start discussing!

Panel discussions are a great addition to any conference, convention, or meeting. Fostering dialogue that provokes new ideas, different perspectives, and great insight is the reason why panel discussions are so successful in the event industry. Keep in mind that all panel discussions are different and there’s no one right answer. As long as your audience, moderator, and panelists are engaged yet comfortable, you’re on the right track. Just remember to take a look at our 6 best practices we just went over to ensure you have all your main elements accounted for.

Ready to learn more about the types of events and possibilities you can conduct for next time? Read everything you need to know here!

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