6 Top Tips for Engaging Panel Discussions

6 Top Tips for Engaging Panel Discussions

After a busy month of moderating for the UN, European Commission and trade federations in Brussels and Geneva, plus running how to moderate workshops for public and private sector institutions, I wanted to share my top 6 tips for successful panel discussions.

The common theme is that while a professional moderator always adds some sparkle, it is difficult to wave a magic wand, if the event organisers have not thought editorially about the panellists and format.

Tip number 1

Select the right panellists for the topic. It sounds obvious, but too often panellists are chosen for political reasons rather than for what they bring to the discussion. Even the most seasoned moderators find it very hard to stimulate an engaging discussion with people who don’t have opposing views or different perspectives.

There is nothing worse than a panel where everybody says the same thing. In this case, as the moderator you have no option but to play devil’s advocate. I was once forced to do this during a discussion on refugees. Afterwards, a young student in the audience came up to me and accused me of not liking refugees. I told her that I used to be a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency but my role was not to like or dislike but to stimulate discussion.

Tip number 2

Involve the moderator in panel selection. Many moderators are former broadcast journalists, so they can advise on the range of opinions that are necessary for a stimulating discussion. They can also ensure that there is editorial coherence in the programme as the event unfolds. For me organising an event is like producing a radio/TV programme. It takes time, thought and strong editorial skills.

Tip number 3

Follow BBC best practice. As a producer, you never put anyone on air without checking that they were not only articulate but also had something new or interesting to say. You then wrote a brief for the presenter, who worked out the questions and flow of the discussion.

You were normally looking for those who held opposing views, for or against a subject, but on magazine programmes you often wanted a range of views. These could be demographically different (gender, age, ethnicity) geographically (local, national, regional, international) or involve different stakeholders (government, private sector, NGO, trade union, academic).

Tip number 4

Avoid the presentation style format. This is where each panellist has 10 to 15 minutes to present their perspective, ending with audience Question & Answer. This risks death by PowerPoint, and as people rarely time their presentations – a major mistake – they usually go over and leave little if no time for the audience to ask questions. As the moderator, it is much more difficult to stop someone mid-presentation, although I have done this in the interests of good time management and audience sanity!

If organisers/panellists insist then I suggest I ask them a series of prompt questions so that they can talk around their slides. It takes more work from the moderator and the panellists, but it is more dynamic as it is a conversation.

Tip number 5

Be wary of the opening remarks format. Here each panellist takes 5 minutes to introduce themselves and their perspectives on the topic before the moderator poses questions and the audience Question & Answer. Again, the panellists often talk over their allotted time, but even more problematic is that this can easily be too much information for the audience to remember.

This format works if it is agreed beforehand that the speakers are concise and their remarks pertinent to the subject. For example, if they set the scene for the discussion by introducing their project or programme. If they start to explain issues which are going to be addressed later in the panel discussion, this can become difficult for the moderator to follow up without repeating what has already been said.

Tip number 6

Opt for the Question and Answer Format. Here the moderator either opens with the same question for all panellists or rather like the conductor of an orchestra, brings in the panellists one by one at the right moment in the conversation. For this to work the organisers have to have selected the right panellist (see tip 1) otherwise the moderator spends a lot of time trying to join the editorial dots with a disparate group of people!

If you would like to learn how to moderate like a professional, then drop me a line for details of my in-house one-day workshops or one-on-one coaching sessions.


How to be the Perfect Panelist

How to be the Perfect Panelist

I hear all too often people saying, at events and conferences, that they enjoyed the networking but that the panel discussion was disappointing.

Why does this happen? The panelists are not experts so lack credibility, pressure to put sponsors or friends in the limelight, poor moderating?

Or is it just that panelists don’t know the rules of the game?

As a professional moderator, drawing on my background as a BBC journalist and presenter, I wanted to share with you some of my observations and tips on how to become the perfect panelist.

# Be prepared – Think about why you were invited. What messages matter to the audience? What do you have to say that is interesting and new? What evidence do you have to back up your comments? What do you want the audience to takeaway?
# Arrive early – Make sure you attend the speakers briefing. Check the microphones, the seating and room acoustics. Give yourself a few minutes to relax and focus before you go on stage.
# Be clear, concise and conversational – Don’t talk in jargon, the audience won’t understand. Do not go off topic or sound scripted.
# Be memorable – Bring something personal to the discussion, an anecdote, a story or even a prop to underline a point.
# Add to the discussion flow – Don’t just repeat what the previous panelist has said. Remember to use the “yes and” as well as “yes but” techniques to keep the conversation going.
# Be engaged throughout – Listen with intent. Even when you are not talking, eyes are still on you so avoid the “emotional leakage” that tells the audience you are tired, bored or distracted.
# Be timely – Stick to the time agreed with the moderator for your opening remarks and closing comments. When the moderator or conference host indicates it is time to wrap up don’t tell them either they are too “Anglo-Saxon” or “like a Swiss cuckoo clock”. Honestly, I have not made these quotes up!
# Be courteous – Remain polite towards the other panelists. Don’t cut them off, talk down, dominate, always have the last word. Avoid having a one-on-one conversation with one of the panelists, excluding the others and the audience. I have seen this happen, and you can guess the gender of the culprit…
# Be respectful – It takes courage to ask a question in public during the Q and A session. Acknowledge the contribution. If the question is not clear, do reframe it for clarity.
# Do not rush out of the event – Stay and mingle with participants – you have just been a great panelist and can expect lots of interest in your work and ideas.

Remember it is not just about being an expert, but also being likeable and building rapport with the audience.

Related articles:

Creating a perfect panel
Taking the stress out of moderating

If you would like to attend a workshop or have a coaching session with Claire on how to moderate like a professional or have Claire moderate your event, do get in touch.

Taking the Stress out of Moderating

Taking the Stress out of Moderating

Moderating a panel discussion is stressful. The moderator has to master the subject matter, keep the panelists on message, and manage the audience’s attention span.

It is very easy to do badly – much harder to do well.

Recently, I moderated two high-level panels at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was launching a new financing mechanism with the support of the Belgium government.

When you have panelists of the caliber of the deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, President of the ICRC and Vice President of the European Commission, how do you as the moderator ensure that the discussion flows and the audience is captivated?

Below are my 10 tips for those who have been asked to moderate an event, or to brief a professional moderator:

• Allow time for briefings
I ask the organiser to explain the purpose of the event and the key messages to come out of the discussion.
• Do your research
I google the speakers, watch them on YouTube and see if they have done a TED talk, as this gives me a good idea of what they have to say and how they come across.
• Skype beforehand
I organise a Skype call with each panelist, so I can find out what they want to say and comment on. I send them the line of questioning with a proviso to be ready for follow-ups and to react to the other panelists. I also send detailed timings.
• Meet the speakers on the day
This builds rapport, ensures you know how to correctly present them, and gives you a chance to go over who sits where and which mikes to use.
• Position yourself within eyeshot
I sit either in the middle or on the end, but I make sure I have eye contact so I can either encourage participation or intervene if need be.
• Nail your opening
The first 40 seconds is key as you are at your most nervous and the audience is weighing you up. I set the tone with some punchy opening remarks – similar to a TV or radio presenter. (See the video at the bottom of the page)
• Keep the panelists to time
I am not afraid of intervening if someone is failing to answer the question or taking too long to make a point. I know that this usually gets the thumbs up from the other panelists and the audience.
• Observe the audience
If they are disengaged, I encourage them to participate – asking for a show of hands, and going to questions early.
• Questions rather than comments
When I introduce the Q and A session, I remind the audience that I am looking for questions not remarks. I repeat the question so everyone understands it
• Bring the event in on time
I summarise the main points at the end, ask the panelists to give their final remarks or call to action in no more than a minute. I back-time the event like a radio or TV programme ensuring we come out on time.

Follow these tips and your panel discussion should flow like good wine!

If you are still wondering about how to make a punchy opening, watch how I did it at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. My opening remarks are at 00:12.

Moderating high-level panels at the World Humanitarian Summit from Claire Doole Communications on Vimeo.

PS: Are you not moderating the panel, but still organising it?

Then read my blog How to create a perfect panel and do select a moderator who takes the stress out of moderation for everyone concerned.