When a conference features speakers with different research results or different perspectives, a panel discussion is a great way to increase both the educational value and attendee engagement. This format brings together four to eight people for a meaningful, structured conversation, presenting a variety of perspectives on a specific topic. However, panel discussions require careful planning to turn out well.
Controversy Is Good
First, make sure you've got the right topic. A panel discussion is an excellent vehicle for presenting controversial issues because it stimulates interest without necessarily reaching a conclusion or decision. The format works well when the goal is to identify, elaborate on, or clarify an issue. While panelists are not expected to achieve consensus, the information they present may point to the goal of reaching consensus on an issue.
A good moderator is the key to a panel discussion's success. A moderator must understand the topic and the goals of the discussion, allow time to cover all sides of an issue, and understand the panel discussion process. He or she must be sensitive to the various views and opinions of panel members and also to the composition of the audience. If the level of understanding of the audience is in doubt, a quick poll by the moderator at the beginning of the program can help the panelists pitch their discussion to the appropriate level.
A skilled moderator creates a relaxed atmosphere and offers comments that keep the conversation animated and moving. He or she ensures that each panelist gets an equal chance to contribute to the discussion, while at the same time controlling the amount of time devoted to each topic. The moderator will often summarize the discussion in progress and offer examples and practical applications drawn from abstract ideas presented by the panelists.
The moderator should always meet with the panelists beforehand to outline the flow of the discussion. However, a rehearsal discussion should not be treated as if it were a script. If it is, the finished product is likely to come across as contrived.
Meeting panelists ahead of time also helps the moderator introduce panelists to the audience in a way that enhances their credibility. In these opening comments, the moderator should work to capture audience attention, then immediately shift that attention to the central point of interest.
It's Only as Good as the Participants
Like any other presentation format, the panel discussion has its limitations. An irresponsible panel member or moderator can manipulate the informal nature of the discussion to promote a personal agenda. Also, if panelists don't address questions posed to them by the moderator or other panelists, attendees may become frustrated and lose interest. Remember also that not every subject is suitable for the panel-discussion format. If all panelists agree on a subject, the presentation isn't going to be very dynamic.
The Planner's Job
The biggest challenge for the meeting planner is making the necessary time commitment for planning and organization. This entails not only selecting of a strong topic, a skilled moderator, and expert panelists, but also making sure the group makes time to meet and rehearse, which can be a challenge if, as is often the case, the expert panelists will make themselves available for only a limited time.
The meeting organizer should also review the session's learning goals with the moderator and panelists. By also providing a brief review of adult learning theory, they can help the panelists channel their expertise in a way that will be most valuable for attendees.
6 Tips for Panelists
1.Understand what it is the listener expects to learn from the panel.
2. Participate flexibly and informally, with spontaneity and enthusiasm.
3. Express your views and ideas vigorously, clearly, and concisely.
4. Don't dominate the discussion. Speak no longer than two to three minutes at a time, being careful not to overstate or repeat comments. Help the moderator involve other members of the panel.
5. Pick your spots: Be sensitive to the appropriate moment to present a point of view.
6. Stick to the topic.