Many conference organisers find it challenging to get good traction out of a panel discussion. At an event one of our association executives recently attended, the panelists seemed to be pushing their own agenda, talking over one another and the session was not productive as a result. We suggest there are three main considerations to take into account when planning an effective session around this type of format.

A key area is ensuring that you have identified 3-4 key messages that will be relevant to your audience around the discussion topic – and they are well thought through before panelists are sought. And, panelists are invited to participate for the way they interact with their fellow presenters and the attendees, NOT just for their expertise on a topic.

  • Ensure the MC is well briefed to keep the discussion on track and that he is given ‘seed’ questions to stimulate robust discussion.
  • Talk with attendees at breaks prior to the panel discussion to gain attendee points of view and use this to direct questions to the panel.
  • Ensure the panelists are well briefed about each other – if possible get them to meet just before their session so they have a chat about their contribution. This way the panelists will have a familiarity with each other and increase their ability to interact with each other.
  • Consider speakers who are already speaking on the day as potential panelists – you don’t have to have ‘fresh faces’. The advantage of this is the audience has a dual opportunity to get to know them through their individual sessions on conference day as well. One of the best panel discussions we’ve seen was at the end of a conference when the panel speakers were relaxed and the session was a great discussion around issues that were raised during the day from attendees.
  • Brief your panelists well – let them know you want the focus to be the audience – not about panelists grandstanding about who they are – ask them to leave their egos at the door!

For 8 other tips to improve panel discussions by Anne Thornley-Brown, click here.

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