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How to Host a Panel Discussion at Your Next Event

Andrea Amorosi April 12, 2024
Table of Contents
8 min read

Panel discussions are an engaging and dynamic way to explore different perspectives and dig deeper into new ideas. They successfully bring together experts from various fields surrounding a field of study or topic and provide an abundance of insights and knowledge on the topic. If you are considering hosting a panel discussion to liven up your next event, consider the following invaluable information about how to choose the correct format and how to get the most out of your panel discussion experience:

What is a Panel Discussion?

A panel discussion employs a specific format that allows a group of people to exchange views and insights on a certain topic as part of a meeting, conference, or other event. It can be set up online or in person and can either be live or streamed and then aired at a later time. Since interactions happen live, panel discussions work best in this format as they can also interact with an audience and improve the overall quality of discussion. Of course, there is always the option of recording the live interactions and playing it back remotely at a different time. Panelists often include a small number of industry experts, from four to five, and their ideal length is anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, no more.

A panel discussion differs from an interview with a panelist in that a moderator does not simply ask questions of the panelist; instead, the idea is to promote lively discourse and meaningful discussion. It can include audience participation or questions, but ideally, panel discussions will not solely rely on questions from the audience to direct conversation. Also, moderators in an effective panel discussion format will take time to introduce each topic and help direct the discussion among both the panelists themselves and the audience. The idea goes beyond simply presenting information and instead considers ways to engage every attendee.

The Main Benefits of a Panel Discussion

A well-formatted and orchestrated panel discussion will generate interesting dialogue, which is thought-provoking and even, perhaps academically challenging, and inspiring for the observer or audience. It is a unique and interactive way to learn more about thought-provoking topics as people or experts from different perspectives respectfully yet passionately share their perspectives or knowledge on a topic.

What Are The Different Types of Panel Discussions?

There are a few different structures or types of panel discussions for you to consider for your next event or conference. Each of them offers a slightly different framework and experience for not only your audience but your panelists as well. The following are just a few of the various types to consider:

  • Presentation Style: This type of panel discussion begins with the introduction of the main topic to your panelist. The panelists will then offer insights or ideas based on this topic, and then there will be audience questions and an answer time afterward.
  • Initial Remarks Style: In this type, the panelists will introduce themselves and then share their perspectives on the topic. Audience questions and answers will follow based on moderator-curated questions.
  • Mainstage Style: This format includes panelists who are invited to participate, the main stage presenters, and perhaps even including the event’s keynote speaker as part of the discussion. With this variety of panel discussion, there is no audience question-and-answer period.
  • Q&A Style: This format asks moderator-curated questions to the panelists after an introduction of the experts, then will end with audience Q&A.

Need help choosing the right panel format for your next event? Visit our page on planning association events for tips and strategies.

Six Steps For a Successful Panel Discussion

Now that you have considered the definition of a panel discussion and understand the benefit it can provide to your conference, it’s time to learn how to make the experience successful. After all, not all panel discussions are created equally, and you want to ensure yours is one to remember. The following are some actionable steps to take to make sure that happens:

1. Properly Define the Purpose of a Panel Discussion

The first step to creating a successful panel discussion is to create and then establish a clear purpose from the outset. This means you need to identify the objectives of a conversation and define the outcome you want to achieve. Without a clearly defined purpose, it can be difficult to choose the right panelist or to create a proper discussion structure. To figure out the purpose of your panel discussion, answer the following questions:

  • What is the main topic or theme that you want to cover?
  • What are the primary or key issues or questions you want to explore?
  • What is the overall goal of the discussion? Do you want to educate primarily or spark debate or conversation and inspire action?
  • Who is your ideal audience member, and what do you hope they will gain or learn from this experience?
  • What are the main takeaways or points you want your audience members to leave with?

2. Choose Panelists Who Are Experts and Offer Diverse Perspectives

When you narrow down your chosen topic, you can move on to the next step, choosing the right panelists. As you might imagine, this step is vitally important in creating the right kind of panel discussion. You want panelists who will promote and engage in spirited discussion and bring out insightful, valuable points. The following are some ways to help you find the right experts for your panel:

  • Shortlist potential experts who have diverse backgrounds and interesting or unique insights to offer.
  • Do your research before you send out an invitation to make sure that the potential panelist does have information that is relevant to the topic at hand. Also, research credentials to ensure they have the knowledge or background they claim to have.
  • Create and set clear expectations and guidelines that you will provide to the panelists. These expectations should include a breakdown of the topic and include the format and your desired outcome.
  • Hold a practice, also called pre-panel discussion. This allows panelists to get to know one another a bit before the event, making it easier for them to engage when the actual event takes place.

3. Format Your Panel Discussion to Promote Productivity and Focus

Create a panel discussion agenda that is flexible yet focused on productivity. You want to create a structured discussion, yes, but also want to allow for panelists to engage and address key points with freedom. When you structure too much or over format a discussion, it can become a bit too rigid and not flow organically as it would in typical conversation. The following are some helpful tips to keep you aimed in the right direction:

  • Determine the format, meaning will you allow a question session or want to keep a more free-flowing conversation. Is there a need for time limits for speaking? What will that time be, and how will it be enforced?
  • Outline key discussion points before the panel discussion.
  • Provide context, which ensures that the audience and the panelists have a clear understanding of the context as it pertains to the topic.

4. Moderate the Panel Discussion to Promote Productivity and Focus

Another immensely important aspect of a good panel discussion is the moderator. While it is crucial to find the right experts for the conversation, without a good moderator, the panelist discussion can fall flat or get way off-topic fairly easily. The following are what to look for in a good moderator:

  • Able to manage time and keep the conversation moving forward.
  • Understand the need to clarify for the audience when panelists use complicated terminology or industry jargon that is unfamiliar. They provide a definition or explanation in this case.
  • Prevent any panelists, either on their own or in conjunction with another panelist, from dominating the entire discussion or conversation.
  • Guide panelists as they maneuver through the discussion, ensuring that the conversation stays on topic and is helpful, relevant, and interesting to the audience.
  • Highlight takeaways from the panel discussion to help the audience focus on what they need to take away from the experience.
  • Keep the flow of conversation interesting, steering it when needed.
  • Facilitate the question-and-answer sessions between the panelists and the audience.

5. Encourage Audience Interaction and Continued Engagement

Panel discussions should engage the audience and promote interaction. There are many ways to go about this process. For example, one way to take live polls throughout the experience, helping audience members feel part of the discussion. Of course, the standard Q&A sessions are always a valuable part of the process, as well, because they give the audience the opportunity to take part in the panel discussion and not just be an observer. Social media interaction is also helpful in many cases to promote a more engaged audience. In addition, member apps can also help to facilitate a level of audience engagement that makes the whole panel discussion experience that much more valuable.

6. Consider The Success of Your Panel Discussion

A good panel discussion will be informative, entertaining, and engaging for the audience members. To find out if your panel discussion has hit the mark and you have achieved the goal you set forth at the beginning of the process, then make sure to follow up with the feedback portion of the process. This will help you discover where you could improve your next panel and will also help highlight what was well-liked by the audience members. There are many ways to go about getting this feedback, including taking interviews, creating focus groups, and surveys of the audience members. Ask them what the strengths and weaknesses were of the discussion, and not merely if they liked it or not.

It’s also important to ask for feedback from the panelists themselves. Ask them if they thought the discussion was effective, lively, and worthwhile. You can also track some performance indicators of the entire experience that will help you properly evaluate your panel discussion experience overall. Helpful metrics that can be invaluable when planning your next discussion include audience satisfaction ratings, engagement metrics, and even attendance numbers.

Ready for Your Panel?

You’ve seen the benefits of panelist discussions and learned how to achieve success through them. Now, it’s time to take the next step and plan your own. Panel discussions not only enhance audience engagement but also provide a platform for experts to share their insights, skills, and knowledge. They offer a dynamic way to encourage discussion and fun, enriching your understanding of a topic. Ready to see the impact for yourself? At MemberClicks, we’re here to support you every step of the way. Contact us today to start planning an unforgettable event.

Free Member Retention Guide

Ready to retain members and keep them coming back forever and ever? This guide will teach you everything you need to know about member retention. We cover all the basics, like the first steps to member retention and how to map out your member journey. From there, we dive a bit deeper into retention tips.