Beth Brooks, CAE
Beth Brooks, CAE, is an association consultant, speaker, and facilitator. She is the author of "The New CEO's Guide," published by ASAE.
Too often, conference panels fail to engage or draw people in. But the right moderator can help to avoid some of the most common pitfalls. With a few adjustments, these sessions can become thoughtful spaces for dialogue and professional learning.
I have begun to avoid panels at conferences because they are not always the most well-thought-out presentations, and I usually don't get much useful information from them. In a typical panel presentation, you hear one speaker share information, and then others chime in to state their agreement, adding nothing substantive to the dialogue.
There's even a standard form for panels like these. Often titled "Lessons Learned," they typically feature experienced professionals sharing personal successes and failures. To get a wide variety of viewpoints, the session planner might select four or five people to serve on the panel. The title draws you in as you anticipate learning from numerous experiences.
So why do panel presentations often receive poor reviews? The problem frequently begins with the moderator. Without a skilled moderator who knows the subject matter and has the tact and confidence to manage a discussion with multiple participants, a panel session can quickly run off the rails.
A great panel engages in meaningful discussion that naturally stimulates deeper thoughts and questions from the audience.
Here are some ways that a moderator can improve a panel presentation to ensure it delivers engaging dialogue, leading to shared learning.
1. Make the panel feel like a conversation. Four mini-presentations, followed by five minutes for questions, don't add up to a panel; they're four separate presentations. And usually, panelists spend too much time repeating what another speaker has already said. Each speaker should be prepared to speak on a specific topic for three to five minutes. After the remarks, the moderator should facilitate conversation on specific points from each speaker. Then, the moderator then opens it up for discussion by asking questions like: Does anyone have any observations or opinions? Or has this happened to you? If so, how did you handle it? This requires the moderator to be listening, and noting key points each presenter makes.
2. Get to know the subject and panelists in advance. This means the moderator has to do his or her homework on the topic and interact with the panelists weeks before the session. In advance discussions, the participants get to know each other and learn each panelists' strengths and areas of expertise. This conversation leads to great dialogue and interaction on the day of the panel.
3. Introduce each person in a brief but personal way. Don't let panelists introduce themselves, and don't read prewritten bios. Both are boring and usually run on too long. Instead, tell the audience why each speaker was asked to participate. What does he or she bring to the discussion? Again, this is where the moderator needs to know the panelists and each one's area of expertise.
4. Manage the available time. The moderator needs to know how long each section of the presentation should take and keep the session running on time—which means he or she needs to be able to shut down speakers who go on too long. The pre-discussion will probably reveal who likes to talk. I have used a small bell to indicate that a speaker's time is up, which can be a playful way to keep the session on schedule. If the opposite problem arises—if speakers end their remarks early—the moderator should be prepared to ask questions or seek elaboration to add more value.
5. Use slides sparingly. Limit the use of slides to a few discussion points and to display information like the panelist's name and contact details. I'm in favor of banning slides altogether because a panel should be a place for dialogue that happens naturally. When slides are used, presenters can be tempted to stick to the displayed text, as if it's a script.
6. Different opinions should be heard and respected. It can be a letdown for the audience when each panelist says the same thing. But worse is a situation when panelists disagree and get aggressive in making their points. Different perspectives make conversations interesting and deepen learning. The moderator needs to know when and how to break up an interaction between panelists that gets heated.
7. Pay attention to room and seating layouts. The moderator's job is to make sure the panelists are comfortable and keep the conversation flowing. The arrangement of the room can have a big effect on the interaction. Don't have the panelists sit on a stage behind a draped table; get them close to the audience. For a small group, consider using director's chairs with attendees circled up close. For a larger group, consider cushioned chairs or small couches with a coffee table nearby for water or coffee. And avoid using stools, which are uncomfortable and can be especially awkward for a woman wearing a dress or skirt.
The key is to make panel discussions feel spontaneous and engaging. It also helps to have some giveaways that can encourage people to ask questions or contribute their own comments. Taking the time to prepare a good panel will lead to productive conversations, and deeper learning for attendees.