What is Panel, Anyway?

Posted by Kristin Arnold on September 3, 2013

A few months ago, I was facilitating a breakout session to a two-day national conference that started the event with a panel discussion.  It was an interesting choice as most conferences start with something sizzling, dazzling, entertaining and well as impactful.  Each of the panelists were indeed interesting; however put together on the same stage, facilitate by a mediocre moderator, it was not as scintillating as the conference organizers had hoped.

And that’s a darn shame.  It didn’t have to be that way…

Which got me thinking about the panel discussion format.  What it is; what it isn’t.  How to moderate a lively and informative panel discussion.  How to BE a great panelist.  How to engage the audience beyond just a Q&A format.

And I also wanted data.  Sure, I have an opinion about panels, but I also wanted to reach out to the world (that would be you!) and find out what YOU think of panels.  So, please take a few minutes (that’s all it will take, I promise!) and complete this short survey.  When you finish the survey, you’ll be redirected to download a Panelist Do’s and Don’ts Cheat Sheet – quite handy if you are ever asked to be on a panel or moderate a panel!

I also started a LinkedIn group, put together a short 7-part free video e-course and wrote a soon-to-be-released ebook, Powerful Panels: A Step-By-Step Guide to Moderating Lively & Informative Panel Discussions at Meetings, Conferences & Conventions.  My long-term intent is to provide a definitive website for all things you need to know about the panel format.

Because I think ALL panel discussions should be powerful, scintillating, lively and informative.

So when I am talking about the “panel discussion format” let’s be clear about what that format is….and what it is NOT:

A panel discussion is a specific format used in a meeting, conference or convention.  It is a live or virtual discussion about a specific topic amongst a selected group of panelists who share differing perspectives in front of a larger audience.

The panel is typically facilitated by a “moderator” who guides the panel and the audience through the event.

The panel, typically 3-4 experts or practitioners in the field, shares facts, offers opinions and responds to audience questions either through questions curated by the moderator or taken from the audience directly.

The panel session typically lasts for 60-90 minutes.

A panel discussion is NOT:

  • A set of presentations, one after another.  The panel format allows for a brief introduction and then discussion among the panelists and audience.  If the majority of the panel agenda is centered around presenting information, then just give each panelist a speaking slot with a Q&A after each speaker.
  • A one-on-one interview with each panelist.  Many untrained moderators simply ask questions of each panelist, one after another, rather than build the dialogue into a conversation.  Unless there is interplay between the panelists, have an “up close and personal” interview with each speaker.
  • Just Q&A from the audience.  When the focus is completely on answering the audience’s questions, then you have a forum or “town hall” meeting.

Not that any of these formats are bad; they are different than and an alternative to a panel discussion.  Just call it like you see it, be it a panel, presentation, interview or forum.

Use a panel when you believe the group of panelists will generate something more interesting than any one individual panel member could generate on his/her own.

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