As a leading authority on conducting panel discussions, I am often asked for my list of “good panel discussion questions.” And while I can appreciate the intent (the requestor is preparing to moderate an upcoming panel discussion), that’s like asking a grocery store manager for the list of what’s “good” in the grocery store!
Ahhh….there are so many possibilities!
And that, therein is the biggest challenge: A skilled panel moderator takes time to create an extensive “shopping” list of good panel discussion questions. They recognize they will NOT use them all, but by curating their list of questions, they naturally know what questions to ask and when to ask them.
6 Attributes of Good Panel Discussion Questions
Create a list of questions that:
Are tied to the topic
Reflect the panelists’ work & interests
Represent the audience’s interests & challenges
The answer is not easily available
Are concise and to the point
Will provide insights & takeaways
Ideally, you want to carefully craft your question to hit all six attributes, but four out of six are good odds!
Unfortunately, many panel discussion moderators “wing it” rather than prepare interesting and relevant questions. While “winging it” is certainly easier, they create opportunities for less-than-stellar outcomes:
Top 7 Issues with Non-Prepared Panel Questions
Favoritism. The panel moderator asks easy, softie questions, or more questions to their favorites and fewer, harder questions to others. It comes off as unbalanced.
Mundane. Unprepared moderators may default to easy questions the audience already knows or can find the answer to on the internet.
Blathering. Panel moderators who haven’t put much thought into their questions tend to spend too much time stating the question and clarifying the context only to rephrase it again. Takes way too long. A good panel discussion question is tightly woven so time is best spent with the panelists answering the question. Moderator Cassie Kozyrkov says, “Another kind of shocker happens when…a panelist misunderstands the [blathering] question and sets off in a crazy direction without clarifying it first.”
Rabbit Trail. It’s easy for a panel moderator to go down a line of questioning they are interested in. But is the audience just as interested as the moderator? If they haven’t done their research, that answer could be “NO.”
Leading. The moderator may pose a question with an implied assumption or direction, often called a “leading question”. Any kind of bias is not appropriate for a neutral moderator.
Blank Space. There may be some awkward transitions from question to question, segment to segment. A well-thought-out question plan starts with strategic, broad, or ”high altitude” questions, moves to the benefits and/or consequences about why the audience should care, transitions to specific questions asking for anecdotes and concrete examples, and finishes with the ability to apply the information.
Sucked in. Finally, many panel discussion moderators are chosen because they are subject matter experts. Without a plan, it’s easy to get sucked into the conversation rather than tee up some great questions for the panel.
Take the time to carefully craft good panel discussion questions that meet four of the six attributes!
For more information about how to moderate a lively & informative panel discussion, check out our free 7-part video series on how to moderate a panel and other resources to help you organize, moderate, or be a panel member.
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.