How To Do an Engaging Panel

In the last several years, I’ve participated and moderated numerous panels. Some of them were about exciting new technologies, some about business models, and some covered in-depth technological issues.

Doing a great panel, as moderator or a panelist, is always a challenge. In many cases the audience is not that interested in the topic. In others, they have heard a lot about the theme. Therefore, if you would like to do a panel that audience would remember, you should invest some time and effort in building and navigating it properly.

There are many panel’s styles, and I’d like to share with you my own “lessons learned”. Even if you don’t read all the tips — here are the basic concepts:

Think Entertainment. Many look at panels as a mean to convey information. This is absolutely true. But panels should convey information in an entertaining way.

Think conversation — not presentation — try to involve the audience in the panel, and assume that even if you have experts on board, the audience can challenge them in ways you never would have thought about. Here are some tips on how to achieve that:

1. Bring controversial panelists, with different views. Then, bash them one against the other — yes, I know it sounds harsh :). The idea is simple — if all your speakers agree with one another, no one would care. That is the safest path to make your session an email download event (when the audience read their emails instead of listen). Good panel starts with the right people on stage. Without it — it is very hard to get things going.

2. Ask the questions that everyone are thinking about but it seems that they aren’t polite to ask — last VON I was moderating a panel about video and social media . All the panelists were talking about how amazing the online video revelation is, and how it changes the way people create and consume media. No one raised the issue that with content democratization — most of online video is poorly directed and boring. But you see, many of the people in the audience thought about it. As a moderator, I’ve asked a simple question — isn’t all that Internet video just bad content? By doing so, the panel was more interesting, controversial, and answered the audience needs.

3. Slides are a big no no — panels are discussions, not a group presentations. Presentations usually stop a lively conversation, therefore they are the enemy. If your panelists insist — say no again, with a smile. If the panelist cannot protect his views without a presentation — then the problem is not the panel, but the panelists. They will hate you. But after a good panel, they will thank you, believe me.

4. Challenge the audience — ask the audience questions about themselves and their views on the topic at hand. For example, if you are in a social media panel, ask the audience who is using Twitter, Facebook etc. What worked best for me was asking questions in the beginning of the panel, and then in several points in the middle. The audience becomes a part of the conversation, and not a passive player.

5. Don’t over practice—it is important to do a preparation call before the panel, to get to know the people involved, and nail the key issues at stake. However, it is important to keep the panel fresh, so don’t review all the points thoroughly. As a moderator, always keep one question in your sleeve. Remember – it is supposed to be fun for everyone, audience included.

6. Keep PR speak out of the game — yes, companies are using panels to spread their views on the world. Like everything in life, it is not the what, but the how. So, when a panelist start to talk in PR language, what he/she really does, is destroying the conversation. If one of your panelists is doing that — wait until he/she finishes to talk — and say” we thank the PR guy from XYZ for his insightful press release”. The audience would laugh, and the panelists get the message.

What is Your panel advice?


6 Responses to “How To Do an Engaging Panel”

  1. 1 Brent Hodgson March 30, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    I’m a big fan of #4.

    This makes running a panel, or even an interview, so easy.

    It takes care of #2 too, and if you ARE too scared to ask a particularly juicy question, you can always hide behind the “this question is from John Smith of Timbuktu” phrasing.


  2. 2 Kfir Pravda March 31, 2008 at 6:59 pm

    Brent – loved your tip re #2…

  3. 3 Yuval Adam May 5, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Well, that was great. Good Ideas mate 🙂

    Of course, there is the chance that whoever gets to enjoy your #6 may not be happy to return to your panels.
    What is the equivalent of a car-bomb in the hi-tech world? 🙂

  4. 4 Kfir Pravda May 5, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Yuval – #6 is the biggest must’s in a good panel. Smart and good panelists know that the audience tends to stop listening when they feel something is being sold to them. I actually used that tactic in a panel at VON a while ago, and the panelist who I was “bashing” laughed and got the message.

  5. 5 yuval adam May 7, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    “yes, I remember that panel where I said that to him and he laughed very well, as the very next morning I woke up next to a dead horse’s head”

  1. 1 Delusions of Grandeur : Stats | Bill Cammack Trackback on June 3, 2008 at 7:14 pm

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