How to plan a lively panel discussion 

4 minute read

Panel discussions should be the highlights of your conference, but often they’re a snoozefest. Use these Qs to plan a panel that will leave your attendees wide awake.

Conference panels (aka symposia) can be REALLY boring. Ask anyone who’s attended their fair share of academic conferences 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, a writer and associate professor in Connecticut, 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.”

Panel discussions at a conference have the potential to be a highlight of the entire event. They 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. 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.

Why are you planning a panel discussion?

“Hold up,” you might be saying, “the whole introduction just explained why I should be planning one. Isn’t that enough?” Short answer: No.

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 drumming up attendees and buzz around it. 

Think about the objectives of your panel discussion. What can it contribute toward 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 a plain 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 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.

Who will be in the panel (and 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 the chair or discussant or MC)

Picking a good moderator is the key ingredient to a successful panel discussion. The moderator will be responsible for time management and ensuring they don’t let your speakers ramble off on tangents or dominate the talk. So 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, one moderator does not fit 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 moderation the discussion. This article on being a discussant explains the differences and overlaps among the titles quite 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. So, if possible, include guests from varied countries, professions, and backgrounds, and avoid the “manel” (all-male panel).

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 just as much as you need to fill the seats onstage. A sparse audience kills the vibe, while an overly-packed space with no standing room left will leave disappointed attendees out in the halls. So promote your panel and plan for demand in advance.

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…

When should you include time for discussion and 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 a short Q&A session at the end.

Texas-style panel

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

Encouraging 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 app or social media. 

You can also encourage live-tweeting to foster engagement (although consider the potential downside of this before you do). 

Where should everything (and 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 can be affected by how your participants are seated, the resources available to them and the audience, and the overall vibe 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 and can foster a more casual vibe which promotes open discussion. If you are using low seats or a table without a modesty cover, it is good practice to warn your panellists so they can plan their outfit 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. 

Finally, how can you take advantage of the space to achieve your other conference goals? The furniture and the backdrop of the stage are great places to show off your event branding. You can even use these spaces to promote your key sponsors. Pictures of the panel that are then shared online will include these details and carry them much further than the walls of the conference venue.

What can you do to spice up your panel discussion?

Randy summarises well the attitude that many have toward 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.

Throwable microphones like Catchbox are one quick and easy way to make the event more fun and engaging for those involved. You can also encourage audience participation through social media or surprise them with an interactive pop-quiz on their smartphones.

After the panel is over, 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.

Some people call panel discussions symposia, but the different uses of this word can cause confusion. Check out this article to learn a bit more about what a symposium is.

Sierra Taylor

Sierra grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada – a province whose name no one pronounces correctly on their first try. After finishing her masters in Ireland, she wasn’t ready to leave and so found herself a new home in the Ex Ordo office. Now, she keeps the Ex Ordo blog looking fresh and develops creative ways to connect with our community.