Panels are all but synonymous with conferences, but the commonality doesn't mean you should go on auto-pilot when planning your next meeting's forum. Too often, conference panels fail to engage or draw attendees in. With a few adjustments during the planning process, however, these sessions can become thoughtful spaces for dialogue and professional learning.
Beth Brooks, CAE, executive director of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians, admits she started avoiding panels when attending conferences because she didn't find them very beneficial. For a panel to appear effortless, engaging and -- most importantly -- interesting, there are actually several elements that require some forethought and planning. Paying mind to them will better set the session up for success. Following are a number of steps you, your moderator and panelists can take prior to the session to ensure a more enjoyable experience for your meeting attendees.
Do Your Research
The Newman Group, a New York-based business management consultant that offers presentation and media training, suggests beginning panel preparations by answering the question, "What are the goals of all the key players involved -- the organization running the event, the panelists, the moderator and the audience?" The answers should give you a clearer picture of what the panel should look like. Then build a diverse group of participants in terms of gender, age, background and viewpoint, limit the number to six people or less, and make sure they are prepared.
The moderator, as well, should do their homework on the topic and interact with the panelists weeks before the session. After all, a skilled moderator will bring out the best in all participants. Unfortunately, according to Kristin Arnold, MBA, CPF, CSP, author of Powerful Panels: A Step-By-Step Guide to Moderating Lively and Informative Panel Discussions, moderators and panelists are often selected for political reasons and not necessarily for their talents. She urges planners to vet all presenters in advance, making sure they are knowledgeable about the industry and can provide a unique perspective on the topic.
Define the Goal
The National Speaker Association advises approaching the panel session in a strategic way. After defining who your attendees are and what they are looking to get out of the experience, create a specific set of goals for the panel discussion. Do you want to:
- Solve a particular problem your attendees have?
- Showcase the panelists' expertise or capabilities?
- Challenge conventional wisdom?
- Advance conversation on a trending topic?
Figure out what you want to accomplish, share this with the facilitator and the panelists, and charge the moderator with directing the discussion towards that goal.
Pay Attention to the Setting
The arrangement of the meeting room can have a significant impact on the interactions between your panelists and attendees. The American Society of Association Executives suggests ditching the draped table panelists often sit behind, as it actually creates a subconscious barrier between audience members and those presenting. Instead, arrange the speakers in a way that brings them closer to the attendees.
For a small panel group, consider using director's chairs with attendees circled up close. For a larger group, provide cushioned chairs for the panelists or small couches with a coffee table nearby for refreshments. Avoid using stools, warns ASAE, which are uncomfortable and can be especially awkward for a female panelist or moderator wearing a dress or skirt. Trendy furniture can transform the feel of the panel but might also quickly break the meeting budget. Work with the options available through the venue or AV supplier before gathering quotes from outside providers.
Stress the importance of involving audience members in the panel discussion right from the moment the session begins. Inc.com advocates putting note cards and pens at each meeting room table and inviting the audience members to write down their most pressing questions or concerns about the topic. Start addressing those questions right away and go back to them throughout the discussion. You can also gather the questions before the event by using email marketing or social media to ask attendees to submit their queries.
Brooks of the TCEP adds that the forum should not be a series of presentations by the panelists. Instead, the session should come across as a lively and spontaneous discussion among a diverse group of experts sharing their thoughts and opinions, while also entertaining input from the audience. At least every six minutes or so, encourage the moderator and panelists to do something interactive that will engage and stimulate the audience, such as taking a live poll or participating in some form of gamification.
Don't Over-Prepare the Panel
Formal rehearsals are unnecessary prior to the event, as spontaneity will be lost if the discussion feels scripted. Still, the moderator and panelists should be briefed on the process and ground rules for the session. Before the meeting takes place, the NSA outlines what they want to see happen on stage and communicates that over a pre-meeting conference call with the panelists and the moderator. The association suggests discussing the individual goals of each panel member and how they will fit together to achieve the overall objective. Then, they suggest communicating the "do nots", including the following.
- Zero or sparing use of slides. Use them only to grab audience attention or make an abstract concept more understandable.
- No sales pitches allowed -- including selling oneself.
- No questions provided in advance, except for the lead question and an overview of category topics.
The key is to make the panel discussion feel like a natural conversation, spontaneous and engaging.