Limit the Number of Panelists in a Panel Discussion

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I simply don’t understand the thinking of putting a dozen panelists in a panel discussion format that will last an hour or so.


Do the math: five mins for the intro and five minutes for the summary.  That leaves 50 minutes divided by 12.  This gives each panelist about 4 minutes of airtime – as long as the moderator doesn’t say anything and the audience doesn’t ask any questions!  Bottom line: 12 is too many.

But what’s the optimal number?

One person makes for an interview – not a panel.  A completely legitimate format, but it’s not a panel.

Two people makes for an intimate conversation, especially if they have differing (and even opposing) viewpoints. It can appear to be a debate (pro/con, he said/she said, point/counterpoint) or just a fireside chat.

Personally, I like three people with differing viewpoints.  Three just seems to be a magical number.  It brings a conversational tone to the stage.

However, one person might drop out unexpectedly, at the last minute and for whatever reason.  So inviting four panelists to participate is a smart move – just in case.

But five?  Five is bordering on the “too many” realm.  Let’s do the math again, but let’s make sure the audience has some time to ask questions:

Five minutes for the introduction, a minimum of 15 minutes for Q&A and five minutes to summarize – which leaves a paltry 35 minutes for panelist discussion.  That’s no more than 7 minutes per panelist on a good day.  Borderline too many.  Doable – especially if need a broad range of representation, but it’s not optimum.

Six panelists?  It just doesn’t make sense from the panelist point of view (is this really worth my time going to this?  Preparing for it?) and the audience’s point of view (why were they there if they didn’t say anything?).  And, from the moderator’s point of view, it is more challenging to firmly and respectfully intervene as the group gets larger.

So do us all a favor, and pick a decent number of articulate panelists with diverse viewpoints so there can be meaningful conversation among the panelists and with the audience.

For more resources on how to make panels better, 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.

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