I recently attended a company's  leadership conference, and was reminded how difficult it is to plan an event that's lively, compelling and energizing--especially when running a panel discussion.

The panel discussion wins my vote for worst event format: It's slow, it's stilted and it's very difficult to do well.

What usually happens is this:

  • The moderator makes a statement, then asks the panel a question. Panelist #1 speaks for five minutes.
  • Then Panelist #2 speaks for five minutes.
  • Finally, Panelist #3 speaks for five minutes.
  • Then the moderator asks another question, and it starts all over again.

Yawn! There are (at least) three problems here:

  • There's nothing to look at but talking heads.
  • Good panelists sometimes interact with each other, but that leaves the audience in a passive spectator role.
  • If audience members do ask questions, panelists tend to pontificate. And then every panelist feels compelled to add his/her two cents.

I understand why meeting organizers are tempted to use the panel discussion format. They'd like to have more than one speaker with multiple perspectives. And they're hoping for interplay among the panelists, as seen on TV news shows.

But panel discussions require strict discipline and careful planning. Here are four things to do differently:

  1. Choose a strong moderator. The moderator must have a forceful personality. He/she must also understand that his/her role is not to hog the stage, but to run the show to set panelists up for success.
  2. Hold a rehearsal with panelists, explaining the rules of the road. Rule #1: Each panelist can only speak for two minutes or less. Practice flow, handoffs and hand signals, so panelists know how to take silent direction from the moderator.
  3. Involve audience members right from the beginning. Put cards at each table, and before the session begins invite the audience to write down "Your most pressing question or concern about this topic." Collect questions right away and throughout the discussion.
  4. Keep things moving. The faster the pace of the discussion--and the more interaction between panelists and with the audience--the more successful the panel will be.

Panel discussions don't have to be terrible. But changing the typical (boring) dynamic takes work.