The Perfect Panel Discussion

One presentation format commonly seen at meetings and conferences is the panel discussion. Typically, organizers assemble a group of 3-5 experts on a particular topic, and a moderator takes charge of leading the discussion, prompting the individual presenters, posing pre-written questions and coordinating comments from the audience. The format is intended to be informal, conversational and lively.

Panel discussions can be fun and very informative, though there are a few potential land mines to consider. Here are some tips for panel discussion organizers, moderators and participants to make sure your event goes well…

Tips for Organizers


Be sure to take a moment to allow for introductions of each of the panel members. You can introduce them as part of the program or put their backgrounds in writing on slides. Bottom line: You are responsible for making sure that your audience knows the credentials of your panelists so the panelists don’t have to keep repeating them.

Diversity of perspectives

A successful panel discussion generally requires a range of perspectives on a specific topic, so be sure to allow for that diversity when you invite panelists to participate. If your topic is affordable housing, you might include a developer/financier, a government policy expert, a contractor, a landlord, a community organizer, and even a tenant.

Manage time needs

Don’t try to squeeze five panelists into a 30-minute discussion. The larger the size of your panel, the more time you will need for everyone to get a chance to express themselves. Plan your panel size accordingly.

Consider physical set-up

Be sure to arrange for seating that will be comfortable and appropriate for your participants during the entire session. In general, bar stools don’t meet that expectation. Will any of your participants be wearing dresses? Heels? Robes or kilts? Plan accordingly to avoid distractions.

Tips for Participants

Share ideas, not credentials

Though you probably worked very hard to earn your credentials, you don’t need to repeat them when you speak. Let the organizer present your expertise—you can let your words and ideas demonstrate why you are there.

Speak to the audience

When someone asks you a question, it’s natural to respond directly to that person. But when a live audience is present, you should direct your answers to THEM. If you feel then need to respond directly to the asker, you can look back at him or her as you finish your comments.

Pay attention; look at other presenters

Don’t get caught daydreaming when you’re a panel participant. Look at your fellow participants as they speak, react if they say something funny or surprising, and stay involved in the discussion when you are not the speaker. Remember, the audience is still watching you.

Tips for Moderators

Scoop, don’t read

Are you asking questions that have been prepared in advance? Please don’t read them off a sheet or iPad. Instead, pause briefly to look at the text, scoop up the content you need, and look directly at the person you’re talking to as you ask the question.

Give timing cues

Typically, there’s not enough time during panel discussions for everyone to say everything they want about the topic. Develop some timing cues with your panelists (such as a nod that encourages them to wrap up) so that you can be sure everyone gets plenty of chances to weigh in.

Involve each panelist

Is there one expert who hasn’t had much chance to speak yet? Ask a question specifically about their area of interest or expertise to get or keep them involved.

Devices off

Be sure to turn off your phone or leave it elsewhere, and ask panelists to do the same. Silent doesn’t always mean silent—the sound of a phone vibrating in your jacket pocket is easily picked up by a lapel microphone.

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