Harry A. Overstreet, an American Educator who was the first to write about the panel process said, “No one, under any circumstances, is to rise and make a speech. To do so will be the one unforgivable offense!” So don’t let them give a speech at a panel discussion!
To start the panel, the moderator should quickly introduce the topic and the panelists. Rather than moving into the traditional opening remarks (which implies a speech), I suggest you start with an opening salvo – an opportunity for each panelist to launch an idea, position or challenge. The purpose of the salvo is to frame the ensuing discussion – not to answer it!
You can open your panel discussion in a variety of ways:
- Laser Focus. Ask the panelists a provocative question related to the topic. For example, “What is the absolute, biggest challenge related to our topic?” or, “What’s the one thing you did that made you successful in this topic?” or, “If you could go back in time, what would be the one thing you would do differently?”
- Play the Newlywed Game by giving each panelist a large poster-board and marker. Ask a pointed, closed question such as, “What drives you crazy about this topic?” or “What’s the biggest benefit to this topic?” The panelists write the one or two word answer on the poster board and reveal them all at once.
- Show and Tell. Ask the panelists to bring a “prop” – an item that is directly related to their passion about the topic. (Caveat: many panelists won’t understand or will be challenged by this technique, so you might have to give them a few examples. For a panel about oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay, one panelist brought an actual local oyster, another brought in a replica of a non-native oyster, and another brought in a piece of aqua farming material.) In a pinch, you can authorize ONE slide that is a picture of the prop – just in case they can’t bring it to the panel! (it’s too big, too small, too dangerous, too…weird).
- Point/Counterpoint. Provided you know the panelists’ positions on the topic, you can frame the discussion with a quick Point/Counterpoint. Ask one panelist, “What’s your main point on this topic?” then ask for a counterpoint – an alternative view – on the topic. Depending on the topic, you can have more than two counterpoints; you can have several different points of view.
- Other ideas? Would love to hear them!
The key to creating an opening salvo (rather than opening remarks) is to make sure the panelists know the question or technique ahead of time, so they can come prepared. You must also phrase the actual question or instructions to reinforce that the answers are to be short and to the point.
An opening salvo immediately engages the audience, frames the discussion, and allows the panelists to quickly launch in to a lively and informative discussion.
To learn more steps to successfully moderate a panel discussion like a pro, try this user-friendly guide.
Kristin Arnold, professional panel moderator and high stakes meeting facilitator, shares her best practices for interactive, interesting, and engaging panel presentations. For more resources like this, or to have Kristin moderate your next panel visit the Powerful Panels official website.