Panelist Do's & Don'ts
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How to Structure a Panel Discussion
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How to Moderate a Panel

So you’ve been asked to moderate a panel discussion for the very first time. OR, you haven’t done one in a while and are wondering about how to moderate a panel discussion.

As a leading expert in moderating panel discussions, here is the recipe I use to prepare for and moderate a lively and informative panel discussion:

How To Moderate a Panel1
  1. Clarify the vision with the meeting organizer
  2. Select, invite, and confirm the panelists
  3. Prepare an engaging format
  4. Start with a strong opening
  5. Facilitate a lively conversation
  6. Sprinkle in audience Q&A
  7. Finish with a clarion call to action

Step 1: Clarify the vision

Whoever asked you to moderate the panel discussion probably has a pretty good idea of the topic(s) they want to be covered, who should be on the panel, the date, start time, duration, and the location. Beyond these basics, the world is your oyster!

Why do I say that? Because most panel moderators simply replicate what they have seen done before: Stand at a lectern with panelists behind a white draped table and start with introductions, move into initial remarks, ask a few questions, let the audience ask some questions, and be done with it.

Au contraire! You can move beyond the traditional panel structure and brainstorm different ways and approaches to having a lively and informative panel discussion. Think about the overall objective, who will be in the audience, and what you want them to walk away with.

Brainstorm different formats to achieve those objectives. How can you make this experience meaningful and memorable? (Hint: I have a book – 123 Ways to Add Pizazz to a Panel Discussion – that can help you with this!)

Step 2: Select, invite and confirm the panelists

If your panelists have not been selected yet, give some deep thought about who and how many you should invite. Three to four topic experts, experienced practitioners, or beneficiaries make for a robust conversation. (I like to ask four, knowing that you may have a last-minute cancellation.) Beyond four just gets unwieldy!

It’s more than rounding up the usual suspects. Reach out into your network to find D.E.E.P. panelists:

  • Diverse.  You’ll need to have a diversity of opinions in order to have an interesting panel. And don’t forget about visual diversity.  Your panel should reflect the diversity in the room.
  • Expertise.  Ask a recognized authority, practitioner, or key stakeholders who possess strong enough credentials that generate credibility quickly through a published bio or short introduction, a high-profile end-user customer, an employee, or a vendor-partner who has expertise on the topic.
  • Eloquent.  Panelists should be good conversationalists who can clearly and succinctly express their controversial viewpoint on behalf of the audience.
  • Prepared.  That your panelists will do more than just “show up.” They will come prepared with three key messages the audience needs to hear complemented with an anecdote, metaphor, analogy, example, or illustration.

Don’t forget to confirm their selection with a follow-up email with all the details. You may even want to schedule a few conference calls to solicit questions and clarify expectations.

Step 3: Prepare an engaging format

Selecting an engaging format and structure of the panel is at the core of preparing for a great panel discussion. By using the vision as the springboard to creativity, think through how you can open the panel with pizazz, introduce the panelists, ask provocative questions, conduct audience Q&A, and close the panel. Carry forth the theme of the conference into the panel, replicate the elements of a TV show, have the moderator “referee” the lively debate. Oh! There are so many places you can go!

Step 4: Start with a strong opening

The first few minutes of your panel discussion are absolutely critical. Although people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, they do. So it is imperative that you start with a strong opening. While every audience has a different personality, they all want to know they’re in good hands; they need to know you care about them and they can trust you to deliver.

Step 5: Facilitate a lively conversation

The heart of the panel discussion is the lively conversation between the panel moderator, the panelists, and the audience. While the moderator has prepared a list of questions, a skilled facilitator keeps the conversation flowing and intervenes appropriately when things get off track. A good moderator summarizes the interesting points and moves on to the next question – even if it is not in the order they prepared them. They also realize that they don’t have to ask every one of their prepared questions, that panelists don’t have to answer every single question and aren’t afraid to cut off the long-winded panelists!

Here are 12 tips to facilitate a lively conversation:

How to Moderate a Panel5

Step 6: Sprinkle in audience Q&A

You don’t need to save Q&A for the tail-end of the panel discussion. You can take audience questions as you go, or dedicate specific times throughout the session to take questions. Once you have determined WHEN you’ll take questions from the audience, now you have to figure out HOW you are going to entertain questions from the audience: Have audience members line up at the microphone and take their questions, assign microphone “runners” to go to those who raise their hands, or roam the audience to take questions. You can also “screen” the questions and prioritize them using question cards, texting, or tweeting (I love using sli.do for this). Or form small groups to discuss the questions they have and have a group representative present the best question.

Step 7: Finish with a clarion call to action

Nick Morgan wrote a fabulous book called Give Your Speech, Change the World. I believe the same thing holds true with panel discussions. What’s the point if you don’t want the audience to think, feel, or do something as a result of your time together? I highly recommend finishing the panel discussion on a high note with a very clear call to action by asking each panelist to summarize, comment on, or answer a specific question. It is this “final thought” that creates clear takeaways for the audience.

And when you are done, consider how you can continue the conversation even after the panel is over!

Related Articles:

How to Moderate a Virtual Panel Discussion

What Makes a Good Moderator

How to Become a Good Moderator on a Panel


Kristin Arnold is on a quest to make all panel discussions lively and informative. Check out these additional resources for more information on how moderate a panel discussion at meetings, conferences, and conventions.

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

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