Event toolkit – part one: How to avoid the chaos of panel discussions

We have decided to split panel discussions into two instalments. In part one, we are going to look at how to avoid the chaos of panel discussions and learn how to organise an engaging and compelling panel discussion. In part two, we will give you the low-down on how to feel confident as a panellist and maximise your contribution in a short amount of time.

Why do panels go wrong?

A bad, chaotic or boring panel discussion is a symptom of something having gone wrong much earlier in the event organising process – and usually it all comes down to a lack of planning. Sometimes we fall into the trap that thinking once we have secured the chair and panellists the work is done. Unfortunately, this is not the case – there are many practical steps that you can take to avoid chaos in your panel discussions.

Once you have secured your panellists…

Think about the panel from the perspective of your panellists. What information will make them feel confident and prepared for the panel? Thinking through the event like this should help you see what key points the panellists need to be briefed on, for instance:

  • Why have you chosen them as a panellists?
  • What is the purpose of the panel?
  • What will the flow of the conversation be?
  • How will Q&As be managed?

There is nothing worse for a panellist than turning up before the event starts, going straight on stage with no idea of who everyone else is and being unclear about what the audience are most interested in hearing. Avoid chaos and make sure you provide all panellists with a clear brief on the purpose of the panel, logistical information and what your expectations of them are.

It really helps to orchestrate a prep meeting with all panellists and the chair as well – you don’t want the first time they talk to each other to be on the stage! A good way to do this is asking everyone to come an hour before the event starts so they can build some rapport with each other before the event begins.

The Chair

You’ve probably realised that the chair plays a pivotal role in making sure panellists can contribute successfully to a discussion. It’s best to secure a chair who has a strong interest or background in the subject matter itself – it’s tricky to manage a panel that isn’t your specialist subject.

In general, being a chair is hard work and people only get better at chairing through practice. Therefore, remove some of the margin for error and give your chair the extra support they need. Like the questions above, the chair also needs to know who everyone is, why they have been chosen, etc. You will also need to inform the chairs on any additional logistical information – such as the timings of the discussion and any technology on stage they should be aware of.

In terms of content, make sure the chair is confident in what each panellists will bring to the overall question or premise and the key points in the debate that should be covered. Having a well informed chair will put the panellists and audience at ease and avoid the chaos of panel discussions.

Now the content itself…

You have your great panelists and a brilliant chair organised, but now you need a plan for the content itself. Ask yourself – what is the point of this panel and what am I hoping the audience will walk away thinking, feeling and/or doing? Once you have identified your core messages and any applicable actions, combine these with at least a couple of questions and key points to create an outline. You can send this initial outline to the chair so they can give you any feedback to incorporate.

Let the panellists know if you are expecting them to present their perspective at the start of the panel, prepare and speak to particular aspects of the content, or contribute to the Q&A in a specific way. There are many different structures and formats for a panel, but even a basic outline will help the conversation to flow and not stagnate around any particular point. Another top tip is to choose a final question and ask the panellists to prepare an answer to it so there is always a strong ending.

What to do when things have gone wrong?

It’s tricky to solve issues once the panel is live, but below are some helpful troubleshooting tips:

  • Plant questions in the audience to help during Q&As
  • Have signs with 5, 10, or 15 minute warnings so the panellists and chair can keep to time
  • When taking questions, be sensitive to all visible demographics, and ensure a wide range of people are asking questions
  • Don’t be afraid of moments of silence. If people need a moment to get their thoughts together to comment or ask questions that’s okay.
  • Manage the expectations of the audience with clear communications pre-event: audiences get annoyed if their expectations of the event don’t match the reality.

Check out more event and speaker advice in our blog here. You can always contact us for more help in organising your event here.

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