How to plan a lively panel discussion 

7 minute read

Take advantagesA well-planned panel discussion can be the highlight of your event, while a poorly-planned one can be a total snoozefest. Use these tips to plan a conference panel that’ll keep your attendees wide awake.

Conference panels can be really boring. Ask anyone who’s attended their fair share of scholarly events and they’ll tell you about a time they struggled to stay awake while a presenter read directly from their paper, or a moderator made a mess of managing the discussion.

Randy Laist is a Professor of English at Goodwin University and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Randy has plenty of gripes about the modern academic panel discussion format: For more than a dozen years, I’ve participated in conference panels all over the world, and I’ve had stimulating, thought-provoking, and engaging experiences – just far, far too few of them.”

If done well, however, a panel discussion has the potential to become a highlight of your entire event. Panels bring together a group of diverse scholars and experts who share a common interest in the topic, providing a platform for intelligent discussion and debate. And with virtual and hybrid formats, panels have been given even more space to thrive (they’re one of the session formats that people seem to like best online). For this reason, planning a good panel is likely to be an important task on your overall conference planning checklist.

So without further ado, here’s the who, what, where, when, and why you should consider when planning a panel discussion that will engage your audience. Don’t forget if you’re organising a panel discussion, Ex Ordo is a leading solution for panels at conferences. 

1. Why are you planning a panel discussion?

The most important question, and the first one to ask yourself is: ‘Why?’ Nothing should be done just because it’s expected. If you plan a panel with that attitude, the audience will only attend because they feel like they’re expected to. Get excited about the panel, and you’ll have a much easier time creating a buzz and drumming up attendance. 

Think about the objectives of your panel discussion. What can it contribute towards the overall goals of your conference, association, or field of research? What can prospective attendees and presenters expect to get out of their participation in it? Is a panel discussion the right format for achieving the outcomes everyone desires? If a pure Q&A session or ordinary presentation would be better suited to those outcomes, you’d be wasting valuable time in the conference schedule by using an hour or more for a panel.

So before you dive into planning, understand the ‘why’. Then use this ‘why’ as a mantra to guide the rest of the logistical decisions you’ll need to make along the way. If you need some inspiration, check out how the Political Studies Association rewrote the rulebook on academic conference design by integrating engaging panels into their annual conference.

2. Who will be on the panel (& in the audience)?

A panel discussion is nothing without the people involved. And picking the right people can be a tricky task. Here are a few positions you’ll most likely need to fill…

The moderator (aka chair/discussant/MC)

Picking a good moderator is the key ingredient to a successful panel discussion. The moderator will be responsible for time management and ensuring your speakers don’t ramble, go off on a tangent, or dominate the talk. They’ll need to be skilled at politely interrupting speakers that have gone over their allocated time and redirecting the discussion to the previous point. 

But, when it comes to moderators, there’s no one-size-fits-all. Perhaps you need an authoritative figure to keep everyone in line, or a journalistic figure to ask probing questions. Also, consider if the topic is a niche area requiring prior knowledge, or whether a moderator with a neutral perspective could be an advantage.

Now, depending on the format and importance of your panel, several people may be involved in planning and moderating the discussion. This article on being a discussant explains the differences and overlaps among the titles quite well.

The tech support (aka AV crew)

If you’re hosting an online panel or live streaming an in-person one, it’s helpful to have an Audio/Visual pro to manage the tech transitions, along with any potential glitches and/or human confusion that might occur. So, have someone (or a team of someones) at the ready. It’s helpful if they know their way around the conference management platform that you’ve chosen as well.

The panellists (aka panel guests)

Which scholars and experts will you invite to speak at your panel discussion? The combination of panellists can result in a highly-engaging and intellectually stimulating conversation. But it can also result in outright academic warfare. Consider what each person has to bring to the discussion, and how their opinions and personalities might overlap, to produce high quality insights and friendly debate (if this is the desired outcome for your panel).

Think about whether the list of panel guests will represent a fair mix of your attendees. Make sure the individuals involved are relevant to the conversation and come with diverse perspectives. If possible, include guests from varied countries, professions, and backgrounds, and avoid the so-called ‘manel’ (all-male panel).

Finally, depending on the format of your panel, ensure that all panellists can attend in a similar way. Think about “in-person” or “virtual”. If they can’t, ensure that you have plans to accommodate a hybrid set-up – one that won’t disrupt the natural flow of your panel discussion.

The audience

While some panels occur in small, invite-only discussion rooms, others are major events in the overall conference schedule. If your panel is open to all attendees, you’ll need to fill the seats in the audience as well as the seats on the stage. A sparse audience kills the vibe, while an overly-packed room will leave disappointed attendees standing out in the hallway. Going virtual doesn’t help you escape this issue either: A small, online audience can mean hearing crickets in the chat bar, while an unexpectedly large attendance can overload your moderators. So, while you promote your panel, make sure to plan in advance for demand, regardless of your format.

The expected size of your audience will also affect the options you have for format and engagement strategies. If you have a small audience, you may be able to introduce them all personally to foster later discussion. But with a larger group, you’ll need different techniques to promote engagement. And with that in mind, the next W on the list…

3. When should you include time for discussion & questions?

Best practice for panel length is around an hour, which is generally followed by a 20-30 minute question and answer session with the audience. However, the format and length of your panel can vary depending on your goals. Some panel format styles include:

Q&A style

Open the panel with generic introductions of the topic and panellists. Follow this by curated questions from the moderator, a section for questions from the audience, and a closing summary.

Initial remarks panel

Open the discussion with each panellist introducing themselves and their perspectives on the topic. Follow this with curated questions, a short audience Q&A, and a closing summary.

Presentation style

Give your panel a more structured format by focusing on giving each panellist uninterrupted time to speak on their views and/or research. Follow this with a short Q&A session.

Open-floor panel

Give your panel an open structure that facilitates discussion among your moderator, panellists, and the audience throughout the entirety of the session.

Encourage questions from your audience

If you’re running a research conference, ask panellists to provide summaries of their papers beforehand to give your audience time to prepare questions. If the audience is large, you may want to try additional ways to engage them, like asking them to send in questions for the panel ahead of time via your mobile conference app, social media, or conference management platform.

You can encourage live-tweeting (Xing? – the jury’s still out on the correct verb to use at the time of publishing this post). Although it’d be wise to consider the potential downsides of this as well.

4. Where should everything (& everyone) be on the day?

Logistics, especially around your panel discussion stage setup, can seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But don’t leave them to the last minute. The flow of your panel is affected by how your participants are seated, the resources available to them and the audience, and the overall energy of the room. 

How do you want your panellists seated? Will the moderator sit at a table or set of chairs alongside them? Sofas and chairs can make the stage more interesting visually. They can foster a more casual atmosphere, which promotes open discussion. If you are using low seats or a table without a modesty cover, it’s good practice to warn your panellists so they can plan their outfits in advance.

If you have a large audience, you will need to consider the sound and sightlines in the room. What are you using for microphones? If the panel is presentation style, panellists can pass one around as they speak. However, a Q&A-style panel would require each member to have their own mic in addition to the one on the floor for the audience. 

Take advantage of the space

Finally, how can you take advantage of the space to achieve your other conference goals? The furniture and stage backdrop are great places to show off your event branding. You can also use these spaces to promote your key sponsors. Photos of the panel that are shared online will include these details, and extend value far beyond the conference venue walls.

Of course, hosting an online panel comes with loads of other factors to consider. If it’s simply a stream of a live panel, you’ll have to consider your camera angles. As well as how you’ll engage your online audience in the Q&A portion. If it’s an entirely virtual panel, you’ll want to run tech tests in advance to ensure that panellists have a decent place to set themselves up. And you’ll want to consider your attendees’ automatic settings so your panellists aren’t caught off guard by a disgruntled viewer unmuting themselves. When we’re planning our Ex Ordo Education webinars, we always run test sessions with our panellists ahead of time, to ensure they’re comfortable with the system and can check their connection and backdrop.

5. What can you do to spice up your panel discussion?

Randy summarises well the attitude that many attendees have towards the boring and basic panel formats they are frequently faced with. “Panel presentations should be the highlight of the conference circuit, yet they tend to be thought of as the ‘vegetables’ that attendees must eat in order to deserve the good stuff. The dinners, social hours, and other special events that allow for meaningful and thought-provoking conversations.”

A well-run and interesting panel is just a starting point. If you want to take full advantage of the time allotted, consider how you might engage delegates on a deeper level. Getting creative with your panel discussion in small ways can help people remember it as a highlight of the conference.

For physical events, throwable microphones like Catchbox are one quick and easy way to make things more fun and engaging. You can also encourage audience participation through social media, or surprise them with an interactive pop-quiz on their mobile phones.

Online panels allow for an even wider variety of interactive opportunities. From polls to upvotes on comments, members of the audience can be actively involved in and easily contribute to the conversation as it’s happening live.

When the panel is over, regardless of your chosen format, you can encourage your delegates and panellists to continue the discussion online through your event app and social media channels.

For more tips on planning panel discussions

Event Manager Blog has a comprehensive list of things to consider when you plan a panel discussion.

The terms symposium and panel are used interchangeably, which we know can be confusing. Check out our post on symposia vs conferences. We explain the difference between a symposium and a panel. A well as show how engaging scholarly discussions are fertile ground for meaningful future conversations.

Gemma Elliott