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Ken Magill

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How Not to Run a Crappy Panel Discussion

By Ken Magill
I nodded off during a recent panel discussion I attended—right in the front row. Yes, I had had too much to drink the evening before, but that’s nothing new.
I fell asleep because the panel sucked. Well, actually the panel didn’t suck. The panelists were some pretty interesting people. It was the moderator who sucked. That, and there were too many panelists to have a lively discussion.
I have attended hundreds of panel discussions and moderated dozens. More often than not, I’ve been told I run a pretty good panel discussion. They haven’t all been well received—I even got heckled once … jerk—but most have drawn positive feedback.
And even if I’m delusional about my own moderating skills, I have attended enough panel discussions to recognize patterns in those that are good and those that are not so good.
Keep It Manageable
One key to a successful panel discussion is to have one moderator and three panelists, not four panelist, not two, not five … three.
Two panelists makes the panel appear sparse and any more than three limits panelists’ participation and value to the audience.
The exception to the three-panelists rule—and there’s always an exception—is a panel that is based on two opposing points of view. In this case, four panelists are appropriate—two on one side of the issue, two on the other.
Also, the idea that panel discussions must feature disagreements among panelists to be interesting is a myth. Controversy is great for driving interest but isn’t the only tool a moderator has. All a panel needs to be good is to be interesting.
Keep it Spontaneous
At the risk of stating the obvious, the main key to a successful panel discussion is, well, the discussion. It should be lively and spontaneous. One of the worst things a panel moderator can do is have a set of prepared questions and to ask them one by one to each panelist. This is what the moderator was doing at the panel where I dozed off.
“What do you think about such and such? And you? What do you think about such and such? How about you? What do you think about such and such?” Zzzzzzzz.
Striving for equal participation is a noble goal but repeating questions across the panel isn’t the way to achieve it.
The way to give each panelist the opportunity to address the same issue is to have one panelist answer the question and then ask the rest of the panel: “Anyone disagree with that assessment?”
Spread questions around. If someone has something worthwhile to add to one or more of them, they’ll speak up.
Don’t Script the Whole Thing
A moderator should walk into a panel with a half dozen or so prepared questions and one way to craft them is to talk with the panelists beforehand and find out what topics they’re comfortable addressing. 
However, a successful panel moderator will not have to use all the prepared questions because he or she will take advantage of opportunities to guide the discussion in unexpected but valuable directions.
A moderator should view prepared questions as crutches to be thrown off at the first opportunity.
Teach by Example
The moderator should also encourage panelists to come armed with anecdotes and find out what those anecdotes are in general terms before the discussion begins so he or she can prompt them.
Manage the Audience
Another key to a successful panel is managing audience participation. One of my pet peeves is when conference management decides to handle a large audience by placing staffers in the room with microphones. The inevitable outcome of this tactic is uncomfortable silences as the staffers run across the room to hand the next questioner a mike.
There are two commonly used, simple alternatives: One is to have audience members ask the question loud enough for the moderator to hear it and for the moderator to repeat it. The other—for really big crowds—is to set up microphones in the aisles and let would-be questioners line up at them.
Manage Dominating Panelists
Naturally, panels have dominant and not-so-dominant panelists. The moderator should always be aware of who is failing to get a word in and make sure to directly ask that panelist a question or two.
Make Sure Questions Benefit the Whole Audience
Another issue a moderator must be aware of when managing audience participation is that people tend to ask questions specific to their business. If the moderator can’t figure out a way to broaden the question so most of the audience can benefit, the moderator should direct the questioner to take the question individually to one or more panelists after the discussion.
Go Easy on Questioners
For audience members, asking questions can be incredibly intimidating. Always keep this in mind. A moderator should start his or her response with: “That’s a really good question,” even if it’s not.
Author’s note: I am well aware I have just tempted the panel gods and my next panel will most assuredly suck.

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