Creating Powerful Panels That Engage Your Audience

Panel discussion by tylerhoff, on FlickrPanel discussions are still a commonly used format for conference organizers. They’re easy to program and put the kids in the show, but rarely add learning value to the paying participants.

Some of the reasons panels fail to connect include:

  • Lack of preparation and take-charge leadership in the learning design.
  • Watered down content due to general vs. relevant topics and opinions.
  • Low learning value equivalent to a lecture. (Instead of a monologue lecture, panels are often dialogues).
  • Panelists forget who they’re serving…the audience!

Today’s premium attendee wants to participate and feel like they’re the fourth or fifth member of the panel. They want to experience a fast-paced, unpredictable, relevant and forward leaning conversation. They don’t want a formal presentation with a moderator who ignores the audience.

Holding Panels Accountable

A big mistake conference organizers make with panels is not holding them accountable for the learning outcomes of the session. Coach the moderator and the panel participants just like you would a solo speaker for any other educational session.

Borrowing from TED’s speaker commandments, we created the Ten Panel Commandments. These commandments may be borrowed in whole or part to help your continuous improvement efforts and speaker coaching. Some organizations make this part of their speaker agreement. Others share helpful tips like these in their speaker portal or bulletins.

Ten Panel Commandments

  1. Thou Shalt Serve the Audience. They paid good money (at the very least invested their time) to be there so speak to them (not just each other). Remember without an audience, there is no panel. Don’t make them feel like their ease dropping. Help them solve problems and find solutions. Help them connect the dots. Meaning trumps content; always.
  1. Thou Shalt Be Prepared. Research the other panelist’s positions and determine what makes you/your position unique from the others. Keep your answers short and concise. Prepare 3-5 key messages that matter to this audience. Be ready to support your points with concrete examples and crisp, concise stories that humanize your message and drive it home.
  1. Thou Shalt Not Bluster. When you are speaking, keep it short. No more than 2 minutes is a good goal. People prefer snappy, well thought out answers to interesting questions. Think and respond in sound bites.
  1. Thou Shalt Be Additive, Not Repetitive. Don’t repeat what has already been said by another panelist. Speak up if you have a different perspective or point of view.
  1. Thou Shalt Disagree Diplomatically. At some point, one of the panelists will say something that is not consistent with your own view or perspective. You’ve got to weigh in! Respectfully disagree without being disagreeable. Don’t disagree simply because you can. Disagree because the discussion will benefit the audience.
  1. Thou Shalt Not Self Promote. Some panelists just can’t help themselves pitching their product, service or company. Don’t be that person. NO ONE wants to hear your sales pitch. Instead, make your comments in service to the audience.
  1. Thou Shalt Not Pontificate. Don’t talk down to or lecture the audience. You are there to have a conversation with the other panelists and audience as colleagues, not to serve your ego.
  1. Thou Shalt Remember All the While Laughter is Good. So have fun.
  1. Thou Shalt Remember Images Speak Louder Than Words. If you’re using PowerPoint use text sparingly. Font size should be 40 or greater. Select an impactful image that conveys your message.
  1. Thou Shalt Remember Attention Span Drops After 10 Minutes. Change up the energy every 10 minutes with an audience question, poll, story or 30 second rapid response to a question. Follow TV programming guidelines (commercial break every 10 minutes).

What other commandments would you add? What other interventions have you tried to improve the panel discussion format experience?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  1. Excellent list, Sarah! I would also add, “Thou shalt not be boring.” From the moment the audience walks in the room, they make assumptions about the panel. Long, white draped table with microphone stands? Boring! Lectern at the end? Ho Hum.
    Start smartly. I like to ask a provocative, short/closed question to the audience AND the panelists – with the panelists having to write down their answer on a large foam board for all to read (think The Newlywed Game) – and the audience gets to chat with their neighbors. It really sets the tone that we will be engaging AND entertaining!

    1. Sarah Michel says:

      Great idea Kristin! Check out Kristin’s book and other great resources at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *