Guide to Effective Panel Discussions

We have been asked to design, convene and execute a variety of panel discussions. Some of the most interesting were for a professional association to help its membership advance their knowledge base and understanding of topics relevant to their industry. For those we learned the power of finding panelists who could share really diverse perspectives and build on each others’ ideas with ease. More recently, we designed a panel of internal speakers for a Fortune 100 client. This panel engaged a strictly internal, employee audience and was moderated by an employee. Over the years and many panels later, we developed a sense of what works well and what we could have done better. And so we share … our General Guidelines for Effective Panel Discussions:

Length: Keep panels to under one hour to maximize audience attention-spans. If executed during a meal, make sure all plates have been cleared when the panel begins in order to minimize distracting noise.
Participants: Limit your panel to 4-5 participants plus a moderator. A group this size will be able to interact, build on each other’s points, and converse without competing for airtime. Diversify the participants so they can bring different, yet complementary, perspectives. (E.g. I moderated a panel on ethics in today’s media relations. We invited an agency head, reporters of both print and digital media, and a corporate media relations representative. The group’s diversity helped make the conversation relevant from a variety of perspectives and experiences.) Similarly, choose a moderator who knows the subject matter, but is most skilled in being curious and managing conversations. He/she needs to be able to engage the entire panel, ask questions, be flexible to build on points that aren’t part of the preparation, and know when and how to best keep things moving.
Preparation: Confirm your participants, then send them a briefing packet with all logistics information and sample questions so they have time to prepare. If time allows, organize a briefing call. If your participants don’t know each other, a briefing call or quick preparation face-to-face meeting prior to the panel is ideal. Make sure you communicate the room and stage set-up, as well as audience make-up so your panelists can fully prepare. Good, prepared panelists should tell stories and use examples that engage the specific audience in attendance.
Ideal Logistics – Stage Set-Up: Traditional panels feature a rectangular table with participants seated next to one another with a moderator at a podium. Typically this set-up is elevated on a stage. This can work well, and it is a predictable structure, so audience members are accustomed to it. It can also be effective to remove the table, give participants lavalier microphones, and seat them on stools. Coffee-table conversations can also be effective. To execute, bring lounge chairs and small round tables onto the stage, and set the moderator among the conversation. Both of these alternate approaches make the panelists appear more approachable.


Ideal Logistics – Other:
  • Every speaker needs his/her own microphone. While sharing of microphones can be cost-effective, it misuses time and can be distracting.
  • IMAG works well if the panel is executed in a large room.
  • Slides can be used if words are limited and the slides entertain and extend important points. Limit panelists’ slide count to avoid “one-way” presentations. If not used properly, slides can limit dialogue opportunity.
  • Identify your panelists with name cards that audience members can easily read. This is important to help stimulate a connection. It is also important during Q&A so people can identify each other by name.
  • If engaging audiences virtually and globally, live-stream your panel and include those participating from afar in the Q&A.
Audience Engagement: Definitely allow time for audience Q&A. This can occur throughout the panel, or is most likely easiest achieved at the end. Depending on room and audience size, assign enough people to roam with microphones and approach audience members who want to pose a question. Always have some questions ready if no one asks a question. Depending on structure, you can accept questions by Twitter or email. It’s wise to gather some questions prior as well. You can also leverage today’s technology by assigning your panel a hashtag, then encouraging the audience to comment or query  in real time.
Post-Op: Whether executing a panel internally or externally, you have a variety of options to maximize and extend the panel after it has concluded. For instance:

  • Capture the discussion on video that can be posted on your website or intranet (depending on audience). The video can be edited or left in tact depending on your desired outcome for audiences viewing the video. For instance, if you are trying to increase your image as transparent and open, leave the video unedited so audiences can view the entire dialogue.
  • Internally, consider a leader or panel member sending a follow-up email to employees regarding the panel and his/her particular take-aways. If this is part of a series, tee-up the next one to pique interest.
  • Also for internal application, consider a follow-up news-style story for an organization’s intranet. Link to the full video dialogue or include excerpts.
  • If executing as part of a series, consider building a microsite where your audience can go to view all panels. Execute with a discussion board so people can discuss.
Measurement: Survey for content and structure effectiveness. Ask for input on future topics and panelists. Most important here, be open to new ideas and approaches, and make note of what your audiences liked or where they offered critical feedback.
Scroll to Top