If you have prepared the panelists appropriately and kicked the panel discussion off well, the conversation will start to flow on its own and the panelists won’t be coming back to you for ping-pongs or hot potatoes.  However, you may need to interject here and there to keep the conversation moving at a brisk pace.  An energy lull can be devastating.

Try these techniques to keep the conversation moving at a brisk pace:

Ask Follow-Up Questions.  Build on what has been said to deepen or extend the thinking.  “You mentioned X.  Could you tell us more about that?  How did you accomplish so much in such little time?”

5Ws & 1H:  Aim for application to the real world versus a lot of theory.  Explore the issues with impromptu and relevant questions that start with Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

Probe Deeper.  When a panelist makes a claim that just doesn’t sound quite right, question it on behalf of the audience.  Ask for an example, metrics or sources to substantiate the claim.

Make Bridges.  Look for opportunities to connect two ideas together.  “Andy, that’s an interesting point you just made about A.  Cathy, earlier you referenced B.  Are these two ideas related?  Do you need one to accomplish the other?”

Connect the Dots.  Listen carefully to the comments and then pose a question that infers a logical consequence of the previous comments.  “Betsy, you mentioned X and Y.  I was wondering if Z holds true?”

Stir the Pot.  Look for areas of disagreement between panelists.  Ask a panelist for a contradictory point of view. “Brian just stated X.  Alice, what is your view on X?”

Ask for the Devil.  If the panel is in complete agreement, don’t just stir the pot because you can.  Although, if you know that there is something deeper to explore, ask a panelist or an audience member to serve as a “devil’s advocate” and argue the other side of the issue.

Catch Contradictions.  You have to be on your toes to catch panelists contradicting themselves.  “Charlie, you just mentioned X, and earlier you mentioned Y.  That seems at odds with each other.  Please clarify your position.”

Test the Unsaid.  If you sense there is something which hasn’t been said, test the waters to bring out the unspoken issue.  “We seem to be skirting around the issue.  Could it be Z?”

Shift Gears.  When you have covered one topic enough, don’t be afraid to shift the focus of the conversation to another topic.

Create Transitions.  Before you move on from one topic to another, summarize the key points and bring it back to the core topic.  These transitions should mark key threads in the conversation.

Be Neutral.  Never say “I agree with…”  Your role is to be neutral and facilitate the conversation, not to weigh in and offer your opinion. 

Be Quiet.  You don’t need to interject a question, comment or make a witty observation after each panelist speaks.  Let the conversation flow…until it isn’t flowing as well.

Heads Up.  Two minutes before the end of this section, let the audience know that you will be moving into the next section (usually audience Q&A), the process you will be using (line up at the microphone, raise hands, use SMS, tweet) and the ground rules.  This gives them time to think about their questions so you can launch right into the Q&A session.

Related Articles:

Powerful Panel Discussion Tip #108 with Joe Calloway: What to Do With a Panelist Who Won’t Shut Up

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

“Turn the Tables” in a Debate-Style Panel Discussion Format

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.