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How to Host a Great Panel Discussion

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A panel discussion can be the highlight of a conference or a snooze fest. A good moderator can make all the difference.

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Panel discussions can be an incredibly insightful exchange of ideas, or they can be a boring snooze. Sadly, at too many conferences and events these days, it’s the latter. I attended a conference recently with a 4-person panel discussion and it took an hour for them to share 10 minutes worth of interesting information. After years of being a panelist and also hosting panels, I’ve discovered the problem is usually the host, so here’s some hosting tips that could make your next panel a positive experience for everyone:

1) Keep the introductions short. Most bios are in the conference program, so you don’t need to repeat them. And whatever you do, don’t ask them to “tell us a little about yourself.” That will take forever and eat into your limited session time. If anything, just give the audience a quick reminder of who everyone is and then get to the discussion quickly, because that’s what the audience came for anyway.

2) Keep things moving. Panels discussions can die fast, so it’s a host’s job to keep it moving forward. When things get awkward or slow, don’t be afraid to step in and change the subject or pitch it to a different panelist. And come with a list of your own questions in case the audience Q&A gets slow.

3) Control the conversation. Yes, your job is to manage the discussion, so command the stage and navigate the direction of the conversation. That means being willing to stop people when necessary—especially if they get off-topic, start ranting or become a bully.

4) Challenge the panelists. Don’t just accept what panelist’s share—challenge them. Ask them questions, be a devil’s advocate, pit them against each other and force them to defend their ideas (not to be a jerk, but to keep it exciting). This is often the most interesting part of a panel discussion.

5) Manage the audience during Q&A. Engaged audience members can be wonderful, but know-it-alls can be a real pain. Your job is to control the audience as well as the panel, so don’t be afraid to stop someone who rambles, doesn’t really have a question or just wants to make a meaningless point. And shut them down quickly if they become a jerk.

6) Be the audience’s representative. As the host, you should be constantly considering the audience. What do they think? Are they enjoying this? I was in the audience for a panel discussion recently where the panelists talked to each other, not to the audience. Finally, audience members shouted, “Talk to us, not to each other on the panel. We can’t hear anything.” A sharp host would have noticed that and fixed it before the audience became annoyed.

The point of a panel is to get different perspectives from different people. The key to keeping it interesting, compelling and fair is a capable host. It’s a tough job, but a good one can make a panel discussion the most interesting part of an event.

Phil Cooke is an internationally known writer and speaker. Through his company Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California, he’s helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and leaders in the world use media to tell their story. This article was originally published on Cooke’s blog at PhilCooke.com.

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