With the potential to both inform and entertain an audience, a successful panel discussion can be the highlight of any conference or convention. The key to making it work is to choose your panelists and moderator with care and to set your agenda thoughtfully.
What Is a Panel Discussion?
A panel discussion is a session format that’s most often used at events such as meetings, industry or academic conferences, and conventions. It brings together a small group of people—typically three to five, sometimes more—to discuss and share ideas in front of an audience. The panel is typically comprised of people involved in a specific industry or industry niche, or they could be experts on a particular topic. Panel discussions are guided by a moderator, whose job it is to keep the discussion on track and ensure that each panel member gets an equal share of speaking time.
A panel discussion may also involve answering questions from members of the audience. The audience can ask their questions directly, or questions can be relayed to the moderator, who chooses which to pose to the panel.
Panel discussions can work well both for live events, virtual events, and hybrid events. They can even be held as hybrid events in themselves, as the panelists and moderator need not be in the same room. A virtual panel discussion could be held over Zoom or a virtual events platform, with everyone, including the panelists, moderator, and audience, attending remotely.
Benefits of the Panel Discussion Format
The panel discussion format is versatile:
- It can work equally well in person and virtually.
- It can function as a standalone event or as one of many sessions at a larger conference or convention.
- It has benefits for both panelists and the audience.
Group synergy: The main point of a panel event is to provide attendees with interesting and valuable information. The panel discussion format is perfect for this purpose. It’s all about the synergy of the group—the idea being that in a group discussion, the audience will gain unique insights they wouldn’t get from a presentation or a one-on-one interview.
Off-the-cuff format: Panelists don’t necessarily need to prepare remarks in advance when they take part in a panel discussion. For the audience, the panel discussion format can provide a welcome change of pace from keynote addresses or PowerPoint presentations.
Audience engagement: Group discussions are typically interesting to watch, even when the subject matter might be considered dry. This, plus the audience interaction element, means these sessions are overall more engaging than ordinary presentations.
Less preparation required: With a keynote or presentation, there are many hours of preparation in writing the presentation, creating slides, and having practice sessions. For panelists, there’s little preparation needed to take part in a panel discussion.
Panel Discussion Format Options
Panel discussions are usually between 30 and 60 minutes long but can extend to 90 minutes. There are four main panel discussion formats, which each differ in how much time is devoted to discussion, Q&A, and other segments. All these formats start with a welcome and introduction, with closing remarks at the end.
- Mainstage format: For this kind of panel event, the entire duration (apart from the introduction and closing) is spent on discussion. There’s no audience Q&A section or presentation.
- Q&A format: This is a panel-only moderated discussion followed by an audience Q&A, with approximately equal time allotted to each.
- Initial remarks format: After the welcome, each panelist introduces themselves and gives their initial remarks on the panel topic. This is followed by the moderated discussion, then an audience Q&A session.
- Presentation format: Each panelist has equal time allotted to a presentation. After all panelists have presented, there’s a moderated Q&A with audience participation.
4 Variations on Traditional Panel Discussion Formats
Most panel discussions follow one of the four types of formats described above. But many event organizers opt to tinker with those in some way, adapting them for new purposes. Examples include:
- Talk show: The panel discussion format is already similar to that of the talk show, so why not lean into it?
- Debate: If you have two (or more) participants with opposing viewpoints, a debate could be an entertaining panel discussion twist.
- Hot seat/pitch panel: In this format, audience members are pre-selected as volunteers to present ideas to the panel, and the panel gives their opinions and judgment on the idea’s merit.
- Empty chair: Add one extra panel chair, and choose audience volunteers to fill the last panel slot for 10 to 15 minutes each.
How to Plan and Host a Panel Discussion
1. Define Your Goal and Discussion Topic
Start the planning process by defining what your goals are for this panel discussion. Consider a few important questions:
- If this is a standalone session: What is the purpose of the event?
- If it’s part of a larger event: How does this session fit into the overall schedule? What role does it play in the schedule?
- What do you want the audience to get out of this discussion? What about the participants?
These are important considerations because your goals for the session will be different depending on whether it’s a standalone or just one session of dozens at a conference or convention. For instance, if this panel event is a standalone event, you likely have specific marketing goals that may influence the format or content. If it’s part of a full-day or longer conference or convention, then it’s one session of many and may have a specific role to fill in the content schedule. A panel discussion could offer a serious look at a topic or provide light-hearted entertainment as well as information.
The next step is to define your topic of discussion. Your ideal topic is something that has industry relevance and furthers your goals for the session and the event as a whole. When choosing a topic, consider the following factors:
- Is it relevant to both the industry and your event theme?
- How does it relate to your company or brand?
- Is this an of-the-moment topic, or is it evergreen?
If there’s an event sponsor to consider, you’ll also need to think about how your chosen topic fits into the bigger picture alongside the sponsor.
Finally, there’s your audience. What panel topics are they likely to be interested in hearing about? Your ideal topic is one that fits with the event theme, is relevant to the current state of the industry and to your audience, and is suitable for your brand and your sponsor’s brand.
2. Choose Your Discussion Participants
Finding just the right group of people for a panel discussion isn’t always easy, especially in a small or niche industry. For the panel discussion format, you need people who aren’t just industry experts but who also have unique and interesting perspectives on the topic in question. And because panel discussions should do more than just inform, your panelists should ideally be people who can discuss the topic in an entertaining way.
When you get a group of people together for a discussion, there’s certain to be some disagreement, so it’s also important to choose participants who can deal with this with maturity. Good panel guests are people who care about the topic and can speak their minds passionately, without losing their cool when others disagree.
Finally, try to include people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and views. You’ll typically end up with a more insightful discussion this way, rather than everyone on the panel coming from a similar industry background.
3. Choose a Moderator
Your choice of moderator is just as important as your choice of panelists. A panel moderator isn’t just there to introduce the panelists and relay the audience’s questions. They’re also tasked with:
- Keeping the discussion on topic
- Making sure everyone gets an equal share of talk time
- Mediating any disagreements or hiccups
- Guiding the topic to a natural conclusion as the session comes to an end
The moderator must do all of this without dominating the conversation themselves.
For this reason, a strong moderator is essential. They must be someone who can deal effectively with a wide variety of people and who doesn’t shrink from difficult situations.
Luckily, you’ll be able to look further afield for a panel moderator than for the panel guests themselves. It’s helpful if your moderator is somewhat familiar with the industry and the topic, but they don’t need to be an expert.
To find a moderator:
- Get recommendations from anyone you know who’s been involved in hosting or organizing a panel discussion.
- Research panel discussions from previous industry events, and make a note of any moderators who look like good picks.
Once you have a shortlist, meet potentials in person or virtually to assess their suitability. Ask for professional references, and make sure to follow up.
4. Set the Agenda
The agenda for a panel discussion defines the topic for the audience and provides a structure for the session to follow. It keeps the session and participants organized, ensuring the discussion stays on topic and the session finishes on time. Everyone involved, including the moderator, panelists, and audience, should be provided with a copy of the agenda.
The agenda should include:
- Welcome and initial remarks: Welcome the audience, state the discussion title and topic, introduce the moderator and panelists, and mention the sponsors. For some formats, panelists may introduce themselves; for others, they’re introduced by the moderator.
- Topic: This covers the topic under discussion, how it fits into the industry as a whole, and why it’s relevant to the event and the audience.
- Questions and discussion points: Any specific subtopics or main points that will be covered and curated questions that will be asked
- Guidelines for audience questions: Depending on how the audience Q&A is structured, there may be guidelines for audience members to follow. For instance, audience members might be asked to submit their questions ahead of time.
- Timeline: Start and finish times, estimated time for audience Q&A, and any time allotted for mid-session break
- Rules of discussion: Established ground rules for panelists. Having a few ground rules helps guide and facilitate the conversation and can help ensure heated discussions don’t become contentious.
A Successful Panel Discussion Is All About the Guests
Careful planning is essential to any event’s success, and that’s no less true in the case of panel discussions. In this case, planning means researching and choosing the best panelists you can find, along with a strong moderator—because the success of a panel discussion relies on the people you choose to participate.