Want to Run a Kick-Ass Panel?

This past week I was a panelist on a Organizational Leadership Session. The topic was “Getting Involved” and all of the panelists were student leaders from a variety of different clubs. Overall, the panel was fun and engaging, but it got me thinking on the differences between “good” panels and “kick-ass” panels. Below are a few of my experiences and tips!

Let’s Start with the Basics

½ Hour Rule

Keep the duration of the panel less than an hour long. Ideally, 25 to 45 minutes is best, including Q&A. Longer panels tend to drag on. Keep the panel concise and on-point. Keep in mind, that the audience will be sitting in their seats for the whole duration of the panel, so treat it like any other speaking session.

3 to 5 Panelists

Avoid having more than 4 to 5 panelists. When you have 6 or more panelists, you end up with each trying to maximize their own time. When you have 2 or 3 panelists are easiest to manage, especially when you want to showcase different perspectives.

For example, I attended a panel on Venture Capital at SociaLight Conference in 2012. There were 6 panelists, each representing a different Incubator and VC fund. In this scenario, the size effectively showcased the Venture Capital landscape in Canada.

Kick-Ass Content

Controversy is King

Simply put, when it comes to content, Ideas > Information. Think about it. Information is everything you can find out on your own, after a productive session with the all wise Google Search.

When you attend a panel, you want to hear and learn from people. You want to learn about their unique experiences and expertise on a topic. You want to hear panelists discuss ideas and debate different perspectives. At the end of the day, the audience wants to be entertained, not just informed. Ensure your panel topic allows for a discussion, rather than a series of 5 micro-presentations from each panelist.

Make it Personal

The more personal the better. At most, take the first question or 2 to break the ice, but as soon as possible dig deep into the panelists experience. The more personal it is, the more insightful it will be for the audience. Personal means stories. People love stories. Encourage as much storytelling as possible. Again, people aren’t there to be informed.

Also, it’ll be extremely helpful for the moderator and the panelists to meet beforehand and build some sort of familiarity. This way the moderator can assess the personality styles of each panelist and use these to create exciting discussions.

Have a Clear Takeaway

It is crucial to define, “What’s the purpose and when does the audience get it?” The two common mistakes I’ve seen are panels that don’t have a clear takeaway. In this case, the audience walks out without much direction or clarity. In this case, make sure to wrap up what the audience has learned and any possible next steps for them to take action or learn more on the subject.

The other mistake I’ve seen is where the point of the panel is made early on, and the rest of the discussion is simply repeating the same thing. In this case, the risk is of getting the audience incredibly bored. As soon as the point is clear, make sure you move on to next steps or simply open the floor for audience’s questions.

Role of the Moderator

The moderator is the single most important factor in hosting a successful panel. The moderator is the core of your panel. The key roles your moderator will play throughout the discussion include:

Setting the tone

Is this a serious or humorous debate? Should I be excited or should I be curious? First impressions are built within the first 10-20 seconds. The moderator needs to grab the attention of the audience and prime them for what’s to come.

Introducing the topic

The moderator introduces the topic at hand, its relevance for the audience, and explains what the audience should expect to get out of the panel by the end of it. Think of “The Hook” of any business pitch.

Introducing the speakers

The moderator should introduce the speakers their background and why each and everyone of them has been specifically chosen for this panel. This builds credibility and gets the audience excited about learning more about the panelists.

Transforming Experiences into Insights

The moderator is responsible for facilitating the discussion and delivering the overall flow of the content. Most importantly, it is the moderator’s responsibility to channel the panelists unique experiences into valuable insights for the audience.

A great technique I saw employed by Diana Chan at the NBTC 2013 was where she prepared a separate list of questions for each panelist. Each panelist received a question that was very specific to their role and industry, which broadened the scope of the discussion for the audience.

Wrap It Up!

This one is simple. All great presentations have an effective, thought provoking conclusion that leaves the audience excited and inspired to get out of their seats and take action.

Sometimes, the moderator asks: “What final advice do you have for the audience?” I’ve also seen the moderator concisely summarize the takeaways for the audience, thank the speakers and open the floor for the audience to participate.

Participation Matters

Consider the role of the audience in the panel. Are they there to simply listen? Or can they help guide the discussion? How about turning the audience into creators?

Audience interaction is key. It’s the main difference between your boring classroom lecture and the intense heated debates you engage with your peers or colleagues. Identifying the best way for the audience to interact is tricky though.

Some panels have the audience deliver the questions through live twitter feeds. Some have the audience present their ideas to the panel, and have the panelists assess or provide live feedback for them. Sometimes the moderator has the audience take sides on a specific matter, and then has the panelists present their opinions for each side, creating a “controversial” debate at hand.

In The End…

In the end, you’re putting all this effort, time, energy, resources, and expertise to deliver a kick-ass panel to the audience. Don’t consider the panel as a series of N micro-presentations. See it as an open conversation and exchange of ideas between experts and learners (audience). See it as an opportunity to both inform, engage, entertain, and incite passion and curiosity in open minds. Make it fun. Make it funny. Don’t recreate the classroom experience. Create a fun and comfortable environment for people to learn, participate and have a fun time.

Keep these things in mind when you attend or organize a panel of your own! I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips!


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