7 techniques for guiding a scintillating panel discussion

As a moderator, you can follow a staid format and have all your panelists nodding in agreement—and your audience nodding off. These approaches will help juice things up.

At most conferences, the panel discussions are terribly boring.

Some panels are so dreadful that many attendees use the time to network in the hallways or check email. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are seven ways to make the next panel you moderate the highlight of the event:

1. Stoke controversy. 

The most powerful parts of a conference are when panelists get into a debate onstage. It makes for great interaction, and it lights up social media feeds. Such memorable moments keep people buzzing during the cocktail reception.

Think of it like a movie: The crucial element is conflict—whether for drama or comedy.

“Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They get married.”

“Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They fight. They break up. They fight some more. They find a way to get back together. They get married.”

The first example is like most panels, with everyone agreeing—and the audience yawning. The second is an emotional rollercoaster, and people stay attentive so they don’t miss the next twist.

Prior to the event, encourage panelists to speak up if they disagree with another panelist. As a moderator, you can also find ways to disagree (politely) with a panelist once in a while.

2. Be brief, and encourage panelists to do the same.

Ask panelists to limit responses to 30 seconds and to say simply, “I agree with [Panelist X],” rather than rehash previous remarks.

If need be, cut off longwinded answers. (The audience will love you for it.)

3. Vary the order of responses.

Rather than “go down the line,” randomly choose panelists to answer—or even leave some out. (They’ll pipe up if they’re itching to chime in.) Your job as a moderator is to wrangle an interesting discussion.

An added benefit is that panelists pay more attention; they never know when you might call on them. It’s also OK for one panelist to ask another panelist—or the moderator—a question.

4. Use alternative information for introductions.

Everyone has the panelists’ bios in their conference materials. Rather than repeat that, I like to visit people’s social media feeds and find an interesting tidbit as an introduction. You might start by saying, “You can read all about the panelists’ impressive credentials in the event app. On my left is Mary, yesterday she tweeted…”

5. Encourage back-channel social media dialogue.

Ask the AV team to make a slide with the panelists’ names and Twitter handles, as well as the event hashtag. Have it on a screen throughout the discussion to encourage social media interaction—and promote your event. I like to peek at the hashtagged feed while I moderate to see if an audience member has posed a compelling question. It keeps them involved and can generate lively insights.

6. Sit with the panelists, instead of lurking on high at a lectern.

Make the discussion like a lively dinner conversation. I love to promote a back-and-forth and, hopefully, some surprising twists and turns. That’s easier when you’re among the panelists rather than looming over them.

7. Have fun.

Above all, have a good time. Moderating a panel is an opportunity to engineer a lively and memorable discussion. If you and your panelists are enjoying themselves, your audience will, too.

David Meerman Scott is a marketing strategist, entrepreneur and author. A version of this post first appeared on his blog.

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