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How To Set Up and Host a Great Panel Discussion - Pearl Academy

How many times have you sat in the audience while a panel discussion was going on and wished that you were somewhere else? Or, maybe you’ve even sat on a panel and felt surprised at how irrelevant the discussions were. More often than not, panellists say what they want to say irrespective of what the topic of the discussion is. The session often becomes a conversation between the people on the panel, leaving the audience out completely.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We’ll discuss how, as a moderator, you can plan and create a superb experience and make the discussion special, meaningful, and exciting. Being a moderator is like being a ringmaster.
You can create a magical experience that people will never forget.
1. Plan the Panel Using Systems Planning and Thinking
Why are you having this panel?
Think about the whole event/experience and why people have come to it. What’s the purpose of the gathering? What are the various parts that have to come together to make a whole? Don’t consider your panel in a silo — think of it as part of a system. What’s the relationship between your specific panel and other parts of the event? What relationship could it have? How can you make your panel the most interesting part of the entire event? Draw out what you want to emerge from the panel. Write these things down and patterns will emerge.
Who should you have as panellists to make it work well?
Once you’ve finalised the theme and goals of the panel discussion, find four cool people to be on the panel. Treat it like preparing characters for a story or the star cast for a really interesting movie, like “The Jungle Book.”
You need a Bagheera — older, wise, an expert who will bring in theory, history, and data.
You need Baloo the Bear — someone relatable, relaxed, and who can connect with the audience. This person often is the one who will bring some much-needed humour into the panel.
You should have a Sher Khan —an aggressive, predatory, troublemaker. You’ll never know what they’re going to say, but it will always be sharp and worth it.
And of course, you need a Mowgli — someone younger who will argue against set norms and bring in a unique perspective and innovative way of thinking.
Also, create a backup in case someone backs out or can’t come last minute.
2. Magic Potions for Interactivity
Prepare prepare prepare
Don’t wait until the last minute. Read up about the topic and prepare for your panel. No amount of time is enough. It’s as if you’re the director and lead actor for a 90-minute movie. Think of all the prior preparations you would’ve done! You may even want to get the dimensions of the hall and look at seating options. You may find some interesting possibilities to change from regular seating. Plan something interesting for the beginning and the end of the session.
Know your panel well. Befriend them and let them know you’re in control
Do a strong background study on your panellists. Find interesting nuggets about their life that you could add where relevant. Speak with panellists individually in advance of the panel and explain what your purpose/intent is. Discuss their point of view so that you know what they’re likely to say. Tell them directly if you would like them to include something. Make sure that every panel member can give their special perspective. Ensure that each is different from the other. Ask them to give specific examples. Meet them all together once more just before the panel and remind them of what you expect of them. Remember that they may be experts in their areas, but you’re the owner of the session, and they have to work within your plan.
Know and love your audience
This is very important. Your audience is why you’re there in the first place. They’re your customers. Ask the organisers who they expect to be in the audience. Especially if it’s a large group, you and the panel need to know who you’re talking to.
Some options to make this interesting are:
Place different coloured cards for people to pick up on their way in. Red for entrepreneurs, yellow for academics, green for marketing, blue for students, and purple for people who just wanted to figure out what was going on. Say, “Let’s take the temperature of this room!” Ask all the reds to hold their cards up, and then one colour after the other, or all together so that everyone gets an idea of who’s there. Or, just call out the category and ask them to put their hands up. This gets the audience members involved right from the start, and they’ll feel like they’re a part of the session and not just observers.
You must leave enough time for questions from the audience. You could sort these too according to the colours. You could say something like, “Let’s have a question from a red card holder/entrepreneur!”
Integrate the session well into the rest of the conference/event
See if you can engage your audience even before the session. Hand out a card with a teaser to the session the day before. Or, send the audience an interesting email asking for questions in advance. Say that the best questions will get selected for the session, and you’ll also give out an interesting prize.
Make a teaser pitch at an earlier session. Generate interest. Have the organisers say that there will be a treasure hunt during your session, and the entire room is going to search for some interesting answers. You must, of course, have some prizes available.
Content is King
Make sure you add value and exceed the expectations of the audience. State clearly what you want to achieve from the session and keep pushing the speakers back to the focus areas. It’s very easy to lose direction — especially if there are senior speakers who like to talk about themselves. Point out to the audience what has been said and what the viewpoints are. If the experts haven’t given relevant examples in a particular area, be prepared with your own so that you can fill in the gaps. Create a card/handout for the audience to take back that will remind them of the content.
3. Add That Special Sparkle
This is what you have to add to the experience. Energy, enthusiasm, humour, empathy, and a few surprise elements. It’s your energy that will hold the whole session together and set the level at which conversations happen.
Surprise or special elements are always worth it.
Use a polling app for some key questions. Be sure to try out the technology in advance!
Do a reverse Q&A session and have the panellists each ask the audience a question. That always creates some excitement.
Use interesting props, like a magic wand. Make the audience laugh by putting up caricatures of the panellists on the screen. Or, give out postcards featuring the caricatures.
Plant some people in the audience in a particular colour t-shirt who will stand up on instruction and say something together or create an important word or sentence.
Invite the person with the best question submitted in advance onto the stage to be a part of the panel.
There are plenty of exciting ideas you can use to make the panel discussion superb.
Finally, watch the audience, respond to them, and make them respond to you. Create an engaging, memorable experience. Encourage them to tweet. Put up hashtags and the experts and organisers’ Twitter handles. Remember that they’re taking time out of their day to be present with you. The panel may end, but you want the discussion to continue. Publish a blog and tag the panellists. Encourage them to share and carry on the discussion.
A panel discussion can be fast-paced, energising, and leave the audience with a wow feeling. Everyone remembers a great experience, and as the moderator, you’re the one who can make it happen!

*Republished from

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