Harry A. Overstreet, an American educator, first coined the term “panel discussion” in a short article “On the Panel” in the October, 1934, issue of The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review.  In essence, Overstreet envisioned the panel as a “glorified conversation [with] all the delight of generous give-and-take. And if it is a genuinely good conversation, it sends people away with a warm feeling not only that their own ideas have been clarified but that their understanding of other points of view has been broadened.”

The actual mechanics of a panel discussion at that time were to:

 

Set the Stage.  “The members of the panel (usually not more than eight) sit on the platform, behind a long table facing the audience, so that they may comfortably lean forward as they engage in the discussion.”

 

Have a Chairman.  “One member of the panel serves as chairman. His function is to state the problem and to keep the discussion well within the areas of relevancy.”  (See Overstreet on the Role of the Moderator).

 

Have No Speeches.  If he is a wise chairman, he announces at the beginning the one simple rule of the procedure; that no one, under any circumstances, is to rise and make a speech. To do so, he indicates, will be audience than they would be, in their the one unforgivable offense.”

 

Kick It Off.  “Informally introducing the individual members of the panel, he then states briefly the problem of the evening and throws the discussion open to the panel, inviting any member to speak as the spirit moves him.”

 

Not Rehearse.  “A nervous chairman will feel that something in the nature of a program must be agreed upon beforehand. He will therefore gather his panel about him and conduct a kind of preliminary discussion. No worse procedure can be imagined. The stimulation and the intellectual value of the panel method lie in its sheer spontaneity, for it is in the atmosphere of spontaneity that the best flashes of insight frequently come, the most fascinating turns of thought, the quips of humor.”

 

Engage the Audience in Q&A.  “Usually, at the end of an hour or so- or better, when something in the way of one or more clear-cut opinions has shaped itself in the panel-the discussion is thrown open to the audience. It is most interesting to watch the swift response. The audience have thus far had no chance to express themselves. But they have been literally sitting on the edges of their chairs. When their chance comes, therefore, they are instantly on their feet. Usually from all over the room, questions and opinions come like rifle cracks, and for another hour the discussion waxes warm.”

 

While the mechanics are still basically the same, a few modern updates are necessary to keep Overstreet’s model current:

 

Get Rid of the Long, Draped TableIt creates a barrier between the panelists and the audience.  Consider seating the panelists in a shallow semi-circle in comfortable chairs with a small cocktail table in front or to the side.

 

Limit the Number of Panelists to 3 or 4.  Eight panelists is too many to have a meaningful conversation..  We have found the sweet spot to be 3 or 4, tops.

 

Carefully Select a Skilled Moderator.  This is crucial to the success of your program.  Never assume that a celebrity or well-known person can do this task.  Do your due diligence when selecting a moderator from within the organization, an industry expert or professional speaker.

 

No Speeches.  This is equally as relevant, if not more so.  If you must, do speeches BEFORE the panel starts!

 

No Rehearsals.  There is some value to giving the panelists a preview of the process you will use – and save the discussion about the content for the actual session.

 

Engage the Audience Early.  Today’s audiences are demanding to be more engaged in the actual development of the program.  You can use technology enablers (social media, email etc.) to engage the audience before the session starts and continue the conversation afterwards.  Furthermore, there are myriad ways to engage the audience during the session beyond just the typical Q&A format at the end.

 

“He” Can Be a “She.”  Overstreet uses the pronoun “he” throughout his discourse, presumably because most moderators and panelists were men.  Unfortunately, many moderators and panelists today continue to be men although it is even more important than ever for the panelists to represent the diverse populations within the audience.  And that probably includes women as well as other under-represented groups. 🙂

 

What other updates do you like to see in the panel format these days?

For more resources on panel formats, make sure to check out this knowledge vault which is chock-full of customizable checklists, worksheets, templates, agendas, sample emails, video interviews and webinars with industry icons and professional moderators.

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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.