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Running a winning panel discussion

Posted by Ron Nehring in Noteworthy on January 25, 2014 with No Comments

Panel discussion

by Ron Nehring

We’ve all been forced to sit through them, like high school detention with a speaker: a poorly run panel discussion at a meeting, training or conference.  Like everything else in life, there are many wrong ways, and a few right ways, to build a successful panel discussion that holds audience attention and actually contributes to accomplishing the event’s goals.

A panel discussion is an opportunity to bring together several different speakers on a common topic and provide the audience with the benefit of the interaction between the speakers.  When Walt Mossberg brought together Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for a two-person “panel” at a 2007 conference, audience attention was driven by the interaction between the two technology leaders.  Six years later, more the video of the event has been viewed more than 6 million times.

There are at least four keys to a successful panel discussion.

A small number of interesting speakers.  The larger the panel, the more time panelists spend listening and not sharing.

An interesting topic for the speakers to address and in the process share their personal insight and experiences.  Like the Jobs-Gates “panel,” the interest comes from the lessons the speakers have gained from what they have done.  It’s not the format for lengthy, highly technical briefings.  Rather, it’s a strong way for interesting people to weigh in with their personal views on the subject.

A skilled moderator who is well versed on the topic and the speakers, and can pose succinct thoughts and questions to draw out the speakers.  A panel discussion is just that – a discussion, not a series of long speeches where the other panelists are forced to awkwardly sit there while one person rambles on.  The moderator needs to keep the conversation going and steer the panelists to engaging with each other.  To ensure everyone “gets it,” the moderator and panelists should have a discussion about the event early enough for panelists to shape what they plan to say for the format.

A stage set up that is conducive to a conversation.  Putting people behind a table with tabletop microphones creates a formal but less conversational atmosphere.  The table also creates an often undesirable barrier between the members of the panel and the audience.  Consider seating people in a semi-circle with the moderator to one side.

Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  The same can be said of panel discussions: the successful ones all exhibit a common set of winning characteristics.  Lose one of them, and you may find yourself looking up and finding the members of your audience all looking down and staring into their phones.

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