Tips for organizing panel discussions

3 minute read

Panel discussions are a great way of getting a wide range of viewpoints from experts in a specific field. In this article, I touch on some of the essential elements you need to consider when putting together a panel discussion. Like any event, panel discussions need to be well planned and thought-out.

The Format

First thing’s first, choose a topic! Naturally the theme of your research conference will help to determine this, although you will need to get more specific. When choosing the topic think through how it could appeal to panelists with a range of backgrounds – a wide variety will result in many different perspectives leading to a great discussion.

Next to consider is the length of the discussion and the number of panelists to invite. In terms of length, best practice is around an hour, followed by a 20-30 minute questions and answers (Q&A) session with the audience to finish. An hour is good because you minimise the risk of losing your audience’s attention. Finally, it is a good idea to keep the number of panelists to a maximum of 5. Any more than this may result in less input from each panelist – anyway, you don’t want them fighting for time!

The Questions

The questions will need to well thought-out and relevant to the topic – they should be engaging and thought provoking. Not that I need to remind you, but I’ll say it anyway – always start your questions using ‘who, what, where, when, why, how’ so to avoid yes/no answers. These questions will help to guide and steer the discussion in the right direction. Have your moderator involved in the development of these questions also – as he/she will be the one asking them, so they must feel comfortable and natural coming from them.

As I earlier mentioned, it is important to allocate time for a Q&A at the end of the discussion, as it allows the audience to participate in the event. In addition to this, a nice way of keeping your audience engaged is by asking questions before, during and after the event. So in the days prior to the conference send your delegates an email with the details of the panel discussion(s). In this email ask them for the questions that they may have in advance of the day. Then choose the best 2-3 questions and include them throughout the talk. 

During the discussion encourage your audience to use twitter. Twitter is an extremely powerful tool for live events. It drives a conversation through a central channel, it keeps people in the loop that are not at your conference or indeed those that are at your conference but attending a different session. Asking the audience to use twitter to ask their questions, using the conference/panel hashtag, throughout the discussion is a fantastic way of engaging them. Have someone compile 3-4 of the best questions on a cue card to provide the moderator to ask throughout the discussion. This will also encourage more people to ask questions during the Q&A session at the end.

The Moderator

It could well be argued that your moderator will determine the success of the discussion. It’s  vital to carefully select the right person to do this job. Ideally you should look to have someone who is experienced in moderating panel discussions. Another fundamental thing is to ensure the moderator is knowledgeable in the topic area. This person needs to be able to instigate questions that will probe the panel for deeper answers leading to a greater discussion.

The moderator will be responsible for time management and ensuring they don’t let the speakers (or indeed themselves!!) ramble off on a tangent or dominate the talk. They must be able to manage this and have the ability to politely interrupt speakers that have gone over their allocated time, and redirect the discussion to the following point. Here is an interesting article by Harvard Business Review on moderating. 


Panel discussions are a great way of getting a range and variety of perspectives and opinions on a topic within a conference. Of course there are many other elements you should consider such as lighting, sound and how the panel will be laid out on the stage i.e. behind one long table or a more open comfortable setting with chairs laid out in a semi-circle etc. Whatever you decide the things that will hinge on your panel success are the format, the questions and the moderator – these elements are the core of your audience engagement!