A panel discussion is a great way to elicit a range of views from people with different expertise and perspectives. They might come from different fields within your industry, different types of company or have had different starting points/journeys within the topic area. Here are key things to consider if you are chairing a panel discussion.
This series is about semi-prepared speaking and facilitation. There is therefore inevitably some preparation required. As the MC, you will have experts on the panel who are there to address specific questions. You will not be expected to know everything about the subject. It is however important you have some background information about what is being discussed. Understand why this is an interesting subject for the audience, some of the hot topics which may arise and the specific areas of expertise of the panellists. This will make your facilitation smoother.
Having a session in advance with the panellists is an important part of your preparation. Use this opportunity to build rapport, run through the set up of the event and discuss issues outlined below.
As with any event involving speakers, as the MC, it is your job to thoughtfully introduce the speakers and get the audience ready for the event. Be clear what you want the audience to do – how can they ask questions.
I recommend planting opening questions for the panel. This is something you can discuss during your preparation. Have a question for each panel member prepared – this could be the same or a different one for each relevant to their area of expertise. Having the panel ready for the first question eases them into the event and gives the audience time to think of questions.
Hopefully once you have gone through each panel member, you will have questions from the audience, but it is always good to have a back-up list prepared if the audience are slow to get involved.
How you take questions for the panel may depend on the type of event and should be considered in advance. Will the audience have the chance to submit questions in advance? Some people may be uncomfortable asking questions in front of a large audience. In an online event this can be worked around by using private messaging in the chat function. In person, I’ve seen questions written on pieces of paper and submitted to event supporters walking around the audience.
Depending on how much time you have, you may wish to direct a question to all panel members or one you know has relevant experience. This should form part of the preparation you do with the panel. You should discuss how can they indicate to you if they particularly wish to input into a question.
Throughout the discussion, you need to be multitasking – listening to the panellists, reacting with follow-up points or questions and looking for the next question.
Dealing with controversy / conflict
Your panel members might not always agree and that’s OK. Hopefully your panel has been assembled for their contrasting experiences and viewpoints.
In her book “The Art of Gathering” Priya Parker has a chapter entitled “Cause Good Controversy”. She outlines how a well-meaning desire not to offend results in a habit of saying nothing that matters. She encourages those in charge of gatherings to ask the tough questions, allow panellists to argue about topics worth arguing about and get new ideas into the open.
Your job as MC is to facilitate respectful, productive debate. Listening to contributors (the panellists and audience), acknowledging their viewpoint and always remaining calm and polite is an essential part of your role.
Part of your preparation with the panel may be to set out how to answer questions, for example the length. Some may be more verbose than others. If their answers become too in-depth, it will preclude others contributing or getting through all the audience’s questions. If a particular panel member goes on too long, or goes off topic, you may have to politely but firmly interrupt and move the discussion on.
One challenge of taking unknown questions from the audience, is over-enthusiastic contributions. I have experienced those who tend to make lengthy statements of their own (commentary rather than questions). When you set out how the audience can interact with the panel, remind them to make questions clear and succinct. And ultimately, if necessary, you may need to interrupt. They may not thank you for it, but the rest of the audience will.
As with any event, the closing is one of the most important parts. It brings the discussion to a conclusion and leaves the audience with their final feeling about the event, which should be positive. Consider giving each panel member a minute or two to make a closing statement, summarising their views or answering a final question, for example their key advice to the audience. You can then thank the panellists, provide any follow up information for the audience and summarise the discussion. It is important as MC you have been listening and can succinctly provide highlights of the event for the audience. More on this in the next article.
Your checklist for smoothly chairing a panel discussion:
- How will the panel be opened/closed, including introductions and pre-prepared questions.
- How will the audience pose questions.
- Which panel member might take what question / how they can indicate their interest in a particular question.
- Any guidance for how panellists should answer questions (time limits).