How to Organise a Successful Panel Discussion

Panel discussions can be an incredible asset to your conference schedule. More engaging and balanced than straightforward lectures and presentations, a well-executed panel discussion is an effective way of exploring issues and topics relevant to your audience. However, it’s imperative that you plan the session well ahead of time to ensure that your audience takes away as much as they can.

We’ve plenty of experience in supporting our clients deliver outstanding and innovative conferences and exhibitions at Tobacco Dock, so we’ve put together a ‘how-to’ guide to help you avoid common panel pitfalls and to impart some top group discussion tips.

Assemble the line-up

Choosing a great panel is an art-form in itself. While it’s inevitably an audience draw to fill the seats with big names, for the most insightful content it’s important to find guests who are passionate in their field. Invite contributors who have a spread of different views and for there to be a chemistry – it’s fine for there to be disagreement, but make sure that the tone remains respectful and positive. As well as representing a range of views, it’s valuable to include a diverse panel who are able to draw upon different experiences and backgrounds.

Don’t get carried away and invite too many contributors. We’d recommend you aim for just three or four, depending on the amount of time you have set aside for the discussion so that everyone has a chance to put across their point of view and that audience questions don’t go on forever with too many people answering.

As vital as the panel members is the person you choose to act as chair. They need to be relevant to the rest of the guests and be able to provide a strong steering hand should the discussion go off at a tangent, as well as to be able to pick up on interesting nuggets and tease them out. Someone with charisma, but who will also be happy to let the panellists take the lime-light.

What’s the plan?

You need to set down a clear set of objectives for your session. All too often panel discussions can veer off in the wrong direction, dragged out of the parameters by enthusiastic or conflicting participants. Having a great title and agenda helps your chair lead the panel, your speakers to contribute in a relevant fashion and ultimately for your audience to get as much as possible out of the session.

Preparation is key so don’t expect your contributors to have to turn up cold. Let them know what the title is, explain the agenda and find out what they are expecting or hoping to contribute. The most useful course of action is to organise a conference call to go through the agenda and to make sure everyone is in the picture. This also gives you advance warning of any potential flash points!

Take a seat

How are you going to present the discussion? Do you want high stools? Chairs? You also need to take the size of the stage into consideration. You don’t want your furniture to dominate the room, or to take up so much space that it’s difficult for those on stage to navigate, but at the same time, larger stages call for higher impact. For example, an event in the Great Gallery would be able to accommodate a far grander set than when holding a discussion in one of the Quayside Breakouts or East Mall Breakout spaces.

High stools give greater visibility to the audience and are a great space saving solution for a smaller space, however they can be awkward for smaller panellists and those wearing skirts and heels. If you have a little more room to play with, a set-up with sofas and a coffee table creates an informal and relaxed atmosphere, helping to put contributors at their ease. If you want the tone to be more business-like, then chairs might be a better option.

Make sure that the panellists have everything they need – glasses and jugs of water are a must, while pens and notepads are often useful if they need to make a quick note.

It’s absolutely key that your contributors can make themselves heard, so test any sound equipment well before the event and make sure that they all know how to work it, whether you’re passing a microphone or giving them their own personal clip-on mics.

And now for a question from the floor

How are you going to take audience questions? Picking from a sea of raised hands is something of a lottery in terms of content and also excludes contribution from the shyer among us. The recent Festival of Marketing put new tech to great use with their app, upon which audience members could ask their questions. These would project up onto the screen and speakers were able to pick the most relevant.

You could also encourage audience members to live tweet the session using the event hashtag. This would be a great way of encouraging contributions from the floor while having the added bonus of getting your hashtag trending!

There are also more and more exciting ways of getting your audience members’ voices heard, with throwable microphones or textable questions.

Wrap it up now

Have a clear time limit from the outset and make sure the chair is well primed to guide the conversation to schedule, while leaving plenty of time for questions at the end. Depending on the number of panellists, the ideal length for your discussion is probably about 45-60 minutes. Remember – always leave them wanting more!

If you’re planning a conference, get in touch with our team! We have plenty of experience and expertise to take your event to the next level.