Tips for Successful Panel Discussions

Panel discussions are a staple of the business conference. Designed to break up the monotony of the scripted keynote speech or the over-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation, the panel discussion allows the audience to listen in on a lively discussion between experts as they share their varied opinions on issues affecting an industry.
At least, that’s what they’re supposed to do. A boring panel discussion can just as easily be the point in the conference where you run to the bathroom, duck out for a coffee or start checking emails or social media from your seat.
As an industry leader, you may be invited to take part in a panel discussion or even be asked to moderate one. Here are some tips to ensure your panel discussion is successful:

#1 Meet Before the Event
As a panel moderator, I insist on contacting each member of my panel beforehand and arrange for us to meet and discuss face to face. I suggest you do this a few days before the conference.
As a panelist, I get nervous if I haven’t been contacted days before the event. Too many conference producers leave it to the last minute and sometimes even arrange for panelists to meet just 30 minutes before everyone is due on stage.
It is essential that you gather the members of the panel at least once. Not only do you want panelists to feel comfortable with one another on stage, as a moderator, it’s your responsibility know well in advance what each is going to talk about.
You need to know each one’s area of expertise, what points they want to make and if there are to be any disagreements in the discussion. This is especially important if you haven’t had a hand in selecting the panelists.
If you’re one of the panelists, knowing your fellow panelists will be an important element in all the tips that follow.

#2 Learn to “Dance”
A good panel discussion is a dance, not a march. The worst panels are where the moderator asks a question and then gets each panelist to answer the question one by one. Then they ask another question and go down the line one by one again, with no opportunities to interact or have any kind of real dialogue.
Great panel discussions are the ones that feel like you are simply eavesdropping on an intense conversation between people who really know their shit.
But why do I call it a dance? Well, because like a dance, someone usually leads, while the other moves in step. If two dance partners went off and did their own thing independently of the other, that looks terrible. A good dance is when one dance partner’s moves flow effortlessly with the other’s.
Dance partners can also take turns taking the lead. As the moderator, if you’ve met the panelists beforehand, you would have a good idea which one has the tendency to dominate the conversation. (Yeah, there’s always one.) And so your job is to make sure that doesn’t happen all the time and that you give each dance partner the chance to shine.

#3 Have a Point
Make sure you go into the panel discussion with a clear idea of the one or two messages you want to get across. You’re participating in a panel discussion because you want the recognition as an expert in your field. So if you want to get invited again, you’d better be memorable.
And when I say have a clear idea, I mean actually decide on the exact words to use. Practice saying them over and over out loud. Make sure the words are not only catchy but roll of the tongue with ease.
Among the current Presidential candidates in the United States, I am a big fan of the way Mayor Pete Buttigieg stays on message. Listen to how he uses his young age, 37, to talk about generational change and differentiate himself from the current US President.
In a previous video I also talked about how stand-up comedians do this to perfect their jokes. Getting the words exactly right help you flag your key message and stand out from the crowd.

#4 Design for Disagreement
The most boring panel discussions are the ones where everyone agrees and everyone makes the same points over and over. In an ideal world, the moderator handpicks the panelists to have the most interesting combination of opinions. But that isn’t always the case.
This is why Tip Number One is so important: if you know your panelists and their points of view, you can steer the discussion in such a way that these opinions come out, especially when they’re opposing opinions. Conflict makes for great entertainment so panelists disagreeing on stage should be a good thing.
In Asia, of course, we tend to be a lot less confrontational than in the West. But there are ways to disagree without being abrasive and while maintaining mutual respect. As a panelist, one way to politely disagree is to flag your contrarian opinion up front.
“I’m going to push back on that…” or “I have a different point of view about that…” These are tactful ways to signal disagreement without offending your fellow panelist.

I offer my services as a keynote speaker, conference moderator and executive trainer. Keep me in mind when you’re putting together your next business event.

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