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

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December 10, 2015
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December 18, 2015

The key to any great panel discussion is for the moderator or audience to ask great questions that inspires frank conversation amongst the panelists.

In my experience, that doesn’t happen spontaneously.  Great questions are often curated in advance by the moderator or crowdsourced from the audience either before or during the panel discussion.

So let’s talk about how a moderator (that could be YOU!) curates amazing questions:

Do Your Research.  First, you’ll want to do a bit of research on the topic, the panelists and the audience. As you research the topic, talk to the panelists and connect with the audience (either through social media or a few sample interviews), you’ll start to compile a list of potential questions. These questions should specifically be:

  • Tied to the topic
  • Reflective of a specific panelist’s work or interests
  • Representative of issues the audience will be interested in

At this point, don’t worry about the exact phrasing or quality of the questions.  Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need – and make sure they cover the topical landscape.

Get Your List. When you are ready, pull out that long list of potential questions from your research.

  • What’s the most prevalent question on everyone’s mind?
  • Why is this topic important right now?
  • What are the key challenges the audience is facing about this topic?
  • What are the two things that are most important to share/discover on this topic during the panel?
  • Where does the panel agree and disagree about the topic?

Cull Your List. Whittle your list down to at least two main questions per panelist. Keep a backup of ten or more questions to use if needed.  When finalizing your questions, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Make sure you ask the questions that are on everyone’s mind.

Sequence the Questions. Typically, moderator-curated questions have a flow that moves from strategic to the more tactical.

  • Strategic. Start with broad or ”high altitude” questions designed to discuss what is happening in the world.
  • Benefits. Move to the benefits and/or consequences about why the audience should care.
  • Specifics. Ask more specific questions where the panelists will be more inclined to share anecdotes or concrete examples.
  • Application. Make sure the audience walks away with substantial value and the ability to apply the information.

There are three schools of thought on the way you should start with moderator-curated questions:

  1. Softie. Warm up the panelists with broad, easy questions so the panelists can settle in and relax. Ask for a definition, talk about the history of the topic or why this topic is so interesting. Then raise the stakes, probing into more controversial areas.
  2. Hardball. Start out with a strong, provocative question. For example, ask each panelist, in 30 seconds or less to offer a strong opinion on the topic.
  3. Gauge the Room. When the audience’s skill level is not known, do some level-setting of the audience’s experience. For example, ask for a show of hands, “How many people have less than 2 years experience writing Java? Between 2-5 years? And those who think they should be on the panel rather than out in the audience?”

Tweak the Questions. Rephrase the questions more economically (the shorter, the better) in order to position the question for the panelist and audience and to focus them to keep the panelists on track.

Create Your Cue Cards.  You can write your questions down on 3×5 or 5×7 index cards (consider using a key-ring punched through the upper left-hand corner to keep the cards in order during the session) or use a tablet to scroll through the questions. You can also use them as prompts for your welcoming remarks, panelist introductions and closing remarks.

Why go through all the hassle of curating some fabulous questions?  Consider it to be an insurance policy.  Sometimes, you won’t even need to use many of them because the conversation flows easily.  Other times, you may have to use every single one of them during a rather fitful panel discussion.  You just don’t know what you’ll find until you get there.  So why not come prepared?

For a useful template for using index cards during panel presentations Click here.

Related Articles:

How to Score Great Panelists for Your Next Panel Discussion

Call for a Lightning Round to Add Pizzazz to your Panel Discussion

Panel Moderator Checklist for Meeting with Panelists Prior to Panel Discussions

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.

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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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