Many people I know – both panelists and audience members – are wondering what is the point of panel discussions.
This is what I am told by the senior managers, leaders and experts I have been training in various communication skills.
It seems they are often too promotional, disorganised, lack focus and fail to deliver any new insights or engage the audience. In fact the audience takeaway seems to be at the bottom of the organisers priority list for a successful panel discussion
And ignoring the audience is having consequences as organisers tell me that fewer people are showing up for virtual, hybrid or in-person panels. It would appear that post pandemic we are all suffering from a case of “zoomitis” and thinking twice before we tune in or turn up to an event.
Putting the audience first
Organisers need to clearly articulate why they are organising the panel and the outcomes they want to achieve, including answering the question why the audience should attend?
Here are some questions that ensure a more audience-centric focus:
• Why is this topic important right now?
• What are the key challenges the audience is facing on this topic right now?
• What does the audience need to know?
• What does the audience want to know?
• What is the benefit to them? Why should they care?
By the way, these are the same questions you should ask when preparing a presentation. Presenting is all about the audience – and so is organising a panel discussion!
It is only once they have thought about their purpose and the audience that they should invite the speakers. Big names can be a draw, but they, like all panelists must be ready to address the issues raised in the panel and not see it as an opportunity to promote their organisation.
Engaging the audience
Most direct audience engagement usually happens during the audience Q&A. Unfortunately, this sometimes doesn’t happen because the moderator runs out of time, often because there are too many speakers are on the panel.
I feel that the Q&A is given short shrift, seen as an add-on rather as integral to the event. In my view, the audience should feel part of the discussion from the beginning to the end. The moderator, for example, can ask the audience’s view at the start of the panel with a raise of hands, or poll, as well as at certain moments during the discussion and can even ask for their opinion or response to a comment made by a speaker.
The moderator’s role is not only to ask the questions the audience wants asked – similar to that of a good journalist, but also to keep them in mind throughout the discussion.
If organisers and moderators take a more audience-centric approach to panel discussions, I am convinced that they will not only get better outcomes, but that the audience will turn up in droves for other events, they organise.