Get more from many: hosting a great panel discussion

As a communicator, you'll have been asked to moderate a panel debate at at least one point in your career. Here are suggestions to plan and lead impactful discussions.

Panel discussions are consistently popular sessions at the annual European Communication Summit. Good panel discussions bring different perspectives on topics and foster open dialogue among the audience and panelists.

As communication professionals, hosting a panel discussion can also be a highlight of a programme, but only if we can safeguard its success. By embracing our role as facilitator of the conversation with panelists and the audience, we can dramatically improve its impact.

Simple suggestions for more impact

Prepare with content: Understand the topic and its aspects that make it worthy of a panel discussion. Use research and insights from the panelists to summarize the topic at the beginning of the session.

Know the panelists: Find out about each panelist and understand their perspective. From viewing their LinkedIn profiles to meeting individually, the more you know, the better you can manage the conversation.

Connect the panelists: provide introductions of the panelists to each other, encourage them to reach out to each other.

Rehearsal: critical to rehearse with the entire panel. Go over agenda and then run through the entire discussion. This provides the best opportunity for panelist to prepare and crystalize their messages.

Check in before the panel: breakfast or meeting before the panel to make sure everyone is in attendance and provides a brief personal interaction that will improve the interaction of the panel.

Provide supplies to panelist note pads and pencils - sounds amateur but it you have good ideas and discussion going, your panelist need to take notes to respond properly.

Protect the time: keep your time as a courtesy to your panelist and audience. Everyone on the panel should have the time to share their perspective. Timing will play a critical role in the success of the panel.

Develop an appropriate structure: Here is an example for a panel for your adaptation:

  • Opening statement on the topic with foreshadowing of the discussion- if it’s a heated debated on a subject or practical hints- let the audience know what to expect.
  • Introduction of panelist by the moderator- establish the credibility of the panel and let panelist focus on the topic.
  • Direct question to each participant: it’s their platform, adapt the question with each panelist if possible.
  • Open question- make sure panelists know the open question beforehand and keep their response concise and timed properly
  • Additional direct questions to each participant
  • Wrap up the topic by moderator
  • Closing comment by each panelist. I prefer to ask for a hashtag to sum up their position/content. Hashtags are a great technique for getting key points to the audience.
  • Questions from audience if possible

After the event is over, plan a feedback round with the panel. All of you will benefit from the discussion. As the moderator, don´t forget to send thank you notes to panelists.

With preparation, you can make positively impact the reception of a panel session. According to an Insights by Stanford Business blog post, “Panelist contributions that are too lengthy or that ramble require a tremendous amount of cognitive effort for the audience to stay focused and understand the relevance of what is being said.”

Guarantee your panels have focus, relevance and impact by managing and directing the conversation. And don’t forget to watch the clock!

Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham is senior manager of global communications for TE Connectivity’s Industrial business in Darmstadt, Germany and serves on the executive committee of the Sustainability Green Printing Partnership. In his role at TE, the global leader in sensor and connectivity solutions, he manages external and internal communications. For SGP, the leading sustainability certification for the printing industry, he leads the marketing activities and chairs the SGP Foundation. Jonathan has a master’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi in the United States.