The meetings industry moved from single presenters and PowerPoints to panel discussions with the thought that they would be more interactive. Instead, they are just driving attendees crazy! In The Panel Report: A 2014 Snapshot on the Effectiveness of Panel Discussions at Meetings, Conferences, and Conventions, 63 percent of the 539 executives, thought-leaders, and meeting planners surveyed said that, while they saw panels at 98 percent of the conferences they attended in the past year, they were at best mediocre. What’s the problem?

• They’re a lazy format—easy to put together and then move on to other, more interesting aspects of planning the meeting. And it shows.

• They’re outdated: The long, draped table puts a barrier between the speakers and the audience, and there often are far too many panelists.

• They’re unstructured: A skilled facilitator is a must-have for a successful panel discussion.

But, with 37 percent still saying panels are good to great, and another 43 percent who said they were OK, maybe the format is worth saving. And it can be, according to the report: “It’s the execution of the format that must be improved.”

The most important factor may well be the moderator—so much rides on that person’s ability to keep the conversation lively and interactive, and to rein in unruly or overly verbose panelists. In fact, the effectiveness of the panel in achieving the meeting’s outcomes was highly correlated with the effectiveness of the moderator, according to the study. But all too often moderators, and panelists for that matter, are chosen for political reasons, not necessarily because they’re really good at moderating or engaging in a panel discussion. Make sure your moderator is up for the job of facilitating and enforcing the ground rules with panelists.

In addition to choosing skilled facilitators and interesting topics, the report suggests limiting panels to just three or four diverse, experienced, eloquent, and prepared panelists, and find ways to make the topic fun and trendy. Make your title intriguing, lose the long, draped table, use technology to engage people through live polling, and think about using nontraditional formats such as a talk show or game show to spice it up.

Panelists and moderators also need to put some thought and work into what they are going to say, and how, well ahead of the session.

Visit The Panel Report Web site to download the full report, which includes a list of suggestions on how to make your panelists shine, collected by the audience at Fresh14 in Copenhagen where the results were first announced.

Source: Kristin Arnold, MBA, CMC, CPF, CSP, meeting facilitator, panel moderator, and president, Quality Process Consultants, Inc., which published the results.