Panel discussions: six ways to avoid chaos

Love them or hate them, panel discussions are here to stay. They are a common format for conferences and events, but, so often, they are a source of stress for organisers, anxiety for speakers and frustration for audiences. Disjointed discussion, domineering hosts, pointless questions and hostile audience members aren’t a recipe for success. So, it’s no surprise that panel discussions can often feel like waste of time.

I recently witnessed a shambolic panel discussion: everything that could go wrong did. The host didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t understand how to take audience questions via the app the event organisers had decided to use. Some panellists were given time to present a talk while others launched directly into questions. The event organiser kept jumping in to contradict the host, the audience was ignored and grew hostile, and the point of the session was completely lost in the chaos.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Seeing this happen before my eyes made me think about what we can do, as event organisers, to make sure that a panel discussion format is successful. Here are 6 ways to ensure that everyone involved has a positive and constructive experience:

1. Be clear on the point.

Honestly ask yourself and your team why you are holding this panel discussion. Be clear on what the purpose is and what thoughts, feelings and messages you want the audience to walk away with. I’ve written about this a lot when it comes to public speaking and curation and the same applies here too. Maybe you’re running a panel because you need to fill time, because you want to hear from a variety of perspectives on one topic, or because you don’t know what other format to use. These reasons are all fine as long as you push yourself to give the panel a clear direction and purpose. For example, it could be to answer specific questions, to come up with solutions, to explore a topic in more depth or to give your audience a chance to ask for guidance from the panellists.

Once you know why behind using the panel format, let that guide you in deciding the duration, format, panellists and host. Everyone involved in the panel should understand clear the outcome you are working towards.

2. Make it easy for your host.

I think hosting or chairing a panel is one of the most difficult roles at an event. It requires someone that can quickly set the tone of the debate, manage the expectations of the audience in what can be covered, coordinate the speakers effectively, think on their feet, draw together different ideas and themes, contain any conflict from the speakers or audience and project confidence whilst doing all of this. So, pick your host carefully and make it as easy for them as possible by making sure they understand the purpose of the event and who the speakers are and check they are comfortable with the format of the event (especially if you are using technology in any way). A good chair may want to come up with questions in advance, write a script and any talking points if needs be. I like to make sure that the host gets a chance to meet all the panellists before the session and has 30 minutes with them to check everyone is on the same page and explore what areas they would like to draw out in the discussion.

3. Make it easy for your panellists.

Once you have chosen your panel make sure to brief each of them clearly, so they know what you want from them, in terms of content and format, and the overall purpose of the panel. Let them know who else is speaking and what they will be focusing on – this way everyone can see the bigger picture. Find out how they would like to be introduced and if there are any topics they do or do not want to talk about (and pass this on to your host).

I’ve worked with a number of speakers who feel very comfortable giving a talk but don’t like being on panels because they worry about questions they can’t answer. Reassuring them by being clear about the format, discussing questions or topics they are uncomfortable with in advance and letting them know it is OK to say “I don’t know” can go along way.

4. Set the format and the rules and then clearly communicate them.

They are many ways to structure a panel and the simplest ways are often the best. For example: everyone gets 5 minutes to present an idea followed by discussion and questions; or each panellist is asked a specific question and then this is opened up to the audience. Try to keep things consistent instead of jumping around with different formats for each panellist. Be clear about the rules, such as the amount of time each person might have, and make sure your host is comfortable keeping people to time. Decide in advance how you are going to take questions from the audience (using an app, from the floor with or without mics, one question or multiple questions at a time etc) and then let the host, panel and audience know in advance. Setting expectations puts everyone at ease – this is especially true for the audience so they know what their role is.

5. Be prepared for the audience.

In my experience 90% of audience members are friendly- they don’t want to see speakers or panellists fail and they want to have a positive experience. After all, they have chosen to spend their time with you! Being clear about the format helps a host to manage the audience, as does being clear about questions versus comments – you might want to invite either – but if you just want questions make this very clear. It is frustrating for speakers and other audience members when someone starts with ‘this is more of a comment than a question’ or just tacks on ‘what do you think?’ at the end of a 5 minute rant. Check with your host that they are comfortable dealing with difficult audience members and come up with strategies to help. Also remind your panellists that it is OK not to answer a question or just say “I don’t know”.

6. Know how to end.

Even with the best planning panel discussions can get pulled off track, so agree with your host in advance how they are going to end the session. I like to come up with one or two questions to close the discussion that will reinforce the purpose of the event – and let the panellists know in advance what these questions will be.

I sincerely think that panel discussions can be a great way to hear lots of different perspectives in a short amount of time or to pull together seemingly different topics with a common thread. A good panel discussion requires planning and purpose to make the best use of everyone’s time. I hope these six pointers will mean you never have to experience or organise another frustrating panel discussion!

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