I spent two days last week with a business conference focus, attending two Kansas City events: The iKC Innovation Conference on Wednesday and the Kansas City Digital Storytelling Forum on Thursday. The keynote presenters at both business conferences were worth the price of admission (Michael Raynor (affiliate link) at iKC and Frank Rose (affiliate link) at the Digital Storytelling Forum), which was great because the panel discussions at each business conference were less successful. While that is disappointing, it is not shocking. Weak panel discussion sessions are more frequent at a business conference than free logoed pens.

7 Ideas for Event Planners to Make Panel Discussions Better

What can an event planner do to make a business conference panel discussion a stronger part of the audience experience? Here are seven ideas an event planner and a panel moderator should consider when deciding to include a panel discussion in a business conference:

1. A bad solo presenter isn’t necessarily going to be a compelling panel discussion member

There seems to be a rampant belief among event planners that a bad solo presenter will suddenly be great when placed in a panel discussion. That is simply not true. If someone has a good personality, enthusiasm for a topic, and is engaging BUT simply does not present well individually, a panel discussion slot can be the answer. If the person has a bland personality, little energy, and is not engaging when they interact, however, an event planner needs to forget about a panel discussion slot fixing the problem.

2. An event sponsor’s employees won’t necessarily be compelling panel discussion members either

It is easy for an event planner to offer discussion panel slots to sponsors’ employees as part of a sponsorship package. But if an event planner is serious about great content, then the sponsor’s employees need to be strong panelists to earn an onstage role. Boring panelists from a major sponsor fill up space, but will not reflect well on the sponsor or the event planner.

3. A panel moderator should watch Charlie Rose, Larry King, and The McLaughlin Group beforehand

The panel moderator has the job of starting the conversation, creating a compelling flow, making connections, and tying topics together. These hosts all handle(d) group interactions in different ways, but each is worth watching and learning from for any new panel moderator.

4. The panel moderator should talk with panelists individually

While pre-session group calls with panels are fine for getting to know each other, the panel moderator should talk to each panelist individually as well. One-on-one interviews are used to identify individual topics specific to each person so there’s fresh content for panelists to react to when the panel is live onstage.

5. Discuss topics, not questions, with panel members ahead of time

It’s great to have panelists well-versed on the subject matter. But it doesn’t make for an interesting panel discussion when panelists have all the questions upfront to rehearse answers. When that happens, you have both a bad presentation (because the remarks are all prepared) and a bad panel (because interaction evaporates).

6. Identify areas of healthy disagreement to explore during the panel discussion

When everyone on a panel agrees, it’s boring. Without different perspectives, there’s no basis for healthy (and interesting) interaction. It’s up to the organizer to assemble a panel that represents differing perspectives and experience. It’s up to the moderator to identify areas where panel members can exchange differing perspectives and then challenge them to do so.

7. Not everyone has to answer every question

The point of a panel isn’t to take a 45-minute chunk of conference time and divide it evenly with each panelist getting equal time. Yet, so many panel sessions try to have equal participation to the detriment of the overall session. Let panelists address questions that make the most sense for them (even if it’s not all equal) and interact with each other. It may seem less orderly to the event planner, but it will definitely provide a more compelling audience experience.

Do you enjoy panel discussions at business conferences?

Granted, I’ve taken a pretty harsh view of panel discussions here, but there are some redeeming qualities and compelling content that can emerge. What  do you enjoy or not enjoy about business conference panel discussions? – Mike Brown


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If you’d like to add an interactive, educationally-stimulating presentation on strategy, innovation, branding, social media or a variety of other topics to your event, Mike Brown is the answer. Emailus at [email protected] or call 816-509-5320 to learn how Mike can get your audience members Brainzooming!

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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7 Responses to “Making a Panel Discussion Better – 7 Ideas for Event Planners”

  1. Gina Danner says:

    I love a good panel. I have sat on some great panels, moderated a few, and sat on some bad panels. The key to a great panel is the interaction between the panelists. They do need to prepare. A good panelist will think about his / her message and what she wants to present. Create some sound bites and be prepared. They should know one another or at least have a conversation beforehand. The facilitator should know the topic and the individuals pretty well. It also helps if the facilitator also knows some folks in the audience.

    The topics / questions should be specifically directed to an individual and not going down the line.

    • Mike Brown says:

      Great first-hand experience, Gina! You’re right on the money talking about interaction as the key. If the exchanges feel natural between panelists, it makes such a difference.

  2. Chuck Dymer says:

    i was at the Digital Story Telling event Mike attended and must admit that I was surprised that there were five different panel discussions at that event. Having that many panel discussions was heavy handed and quite often failed to engage my interest. So, in addition to Mike’s quality improvement points above, let me add this: limit the quantity of panel discussions at your events.

  3. Jamie Turner says:

    Hey, Mike —

    Thanks for a great post.

    I’ll be even more frank than you were — I think almost all panel discussions are an absolute waste of time. Why? Because 1) most panelists aren’t good solo presenters (as you pointed out), and 2) most panelists choose do do mini-commercials for their companies rather than share something meaningful.

    I decline 99% of the invitations I get to speak on panels.

    On the rare occasion I’ve agreed to moderate a panel (which is virtually the only way I’ll participate), I have 3 rules:

    1) Someone must start an argument, otherwise it’s boring
    2) Nobody can do a mini-commercial for their company
    3) Everyone must keep their answers to 60 seconds or less

    Those three tricks are the only way I know to keep a panel halfway interesting. Otherwise, the audience falls asleep.

    Thanks, as always, for another insightful post.

    — Jamie

    • Mike Brown says:

      Great additions, Jamie! Definitely agree with you on appearing on panels; I do some of them, but want to make sure first that I have some idea who the other people are and can help influence the structure so that it’s a worthwhile experience for both the panelists and the audience.

  4. Jeannie Chan says:

    Great article as always. Having recently sat through a not so great panel, may I add the following:

    1) Moderator should know the audience, and prep the panelists accordingly. If the audience is experienced, the panelists should be able to go deeper, which ultimately is the moderator’s job to handle

    2) Moderator should stay as objective as possible. Too often, that line between moderator and panelist gets blurred. It’s great to have an additional perspective, but it’s almost impossible to moderate while participating. That’s why panelists need a moderator in the first place…