I spent two days last week with a business conference focus, attending two Kansas City events: The iKC Innovation Conference on Wednesday and the Kansas City Digital Storytelling Forum on Thursday. The keynote presenters at both business conferences were worth the price of admission (Michael Raynor at iKC and Frank Rose (affiliate link) at the Digital Storytelling Forum), which was great because the panel discussions at each business conference were less successful. While that is disappointing, it is not shocking. Weak panel discussion sessions are more frequent at a business conference than free logoed pens.

7 Ideas for Event Planners to Make Panel Discussions Better

What can an event planner do to make a business conference panel discussion a stronger part of the audience experience? Here are seven ideas an event planner and a panel moderator should consider when deciding to include a panel discussion in a business conference:

1. A bad solo presenter isn’t necessarily going to be a compelling panel discussion member

There seems to be a rampant belief among event planners that a bad solo presenter will suddenly be great when placed in a panel discussion. That is simply not true. If someone has a good personality, enthusiasm for a topic, and is engaging BUT simply does not present well individually, a panel discussion slot can be the answer. If the person has a bland personality, little energy, and is not engaging when they interact, however, an event planner needs to forget about a panel discussion slot fixing the problem.

2. An event sponsor’s employees won’t necessarily be compelling panel discussion members either

It is easy for an event planner to offer discussion panel slots to sponsors’ employees as part of a sponsorship package. But if an event planner is serious about great content, then the sponsor’s employees need to be strong panelists to earn an onstage role. Boring panelists from a major sponsor fill up space, but will not reflect well on the sponsor or the event planner.

3. A panel moderator should watch Charlie Rose, Larry King, and The McLaughlin Group beforehand

The panel moderator has the job of starting the conversation, creating a compelling flow, making connections, and tying topics together. These hosts all handle(d) group interactions in different ways, but each is worth watching and learning from for any new panel moderator.

4. The panel moderator should talk with panelists individually

While pre-session group calls with panels are fine for getting to know each other, the panel moderator should talk to each panelist individually as well. One-on-one interviews are used to identify individual topics specific to each person so there’s fresh content for panelists to react to when the panel is live onstage.

5. Discuss topics, not questions, with panel members ahead of time

It’s great to have panelists well-versed on the subject matter. But it doesn’t make for an interesting panel discussion when panelists have all the questions upfront to rehearse answers. When that happens, you have both a bad presentation (because the remarks are all prepared) and a bad panel (because interaction evaporates).

6. Identify areas of healthy disagreement to explore during the panel discussion

When everyone on a panel agrees, it’s boring. Without different perspectives, there’s no basis for healthy (and interesting) interaction. It’s up to the organizer to assemble a panel that represents differing perspectives and experience. It’s up to the moderator to identify areas where panel members can exchange differing perspectives and then challenge them to do so.

7. Not everyone has to answer every question

The point of a panel isn’t to take a 45-minute chunk of conference time and divide it evenly with each panelist getting equal time. Yet, so many panel sessions try to have equal participation to the detriment of the overall session. Let panelists address questions that make the most sense for them (even if it’s not all equal) and interact with each other. It may seem less orderly to the event planner, but it will definitely provide a more compelling audience experience.

Do you enjoy panel discussions at business conferences?

Granted, I’ve taken a pretty harsh view of panel discussions here, but there are some redeeming qualities and compelling content that can emerge. What  do you enjoy or not enjoy about business conference panel discussions? – Mike Brown


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If you’d like to add an interactive, educationally-stimulating presentation on strategy, innovation, branding, social media or a variety of other topics to your event, Mike Brown is the answer. Emailus at info@brainzooming.com or call 816-509-5320 to learn how Mike can get your audience members Brainzooming!