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How To Lead A Panel Discussion

By Brian Glick on October, 30 2020
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Brian Glick

CEO, Chain.io

reprinted from LinkedIn

I've been asked a few times recently for some tips on how to lead a great panel discussion. For me, it comes down to intent, empathy, and focus.

Intent

Spend some time ahead of the panel thinking about why the discussion is happening. Talk to the producer or host about why they are having the panel and what they want everyone to get out of it. Make sure to think about this question from three perspectives, the audience, the panelists, and the event producers. They may all have different answers.

For example, the audience likely wants to be informed on the topic. They may be a group of experts who want to go deep (like at a technical conference) or a group of general practitioners who need a basic 101-level understanding of a topic with some practical takeaways.

The panelists may be there because they're passionate about educating on the topic, because the panel is an opportunity to promote their product, or because they are looking to grow their reputation. (In business environments, the latter two are more common.)

The event producers generally just want things to go smoothly and for the audience to walk away satisfied. They may, however, have some more specific needs. For example, if you're hosting a panel at a conference for a particular product (like an SAP or Amazon Web Services), they may want you to help tie things back to their product offering.

Once you understand why everyone is going to be at the panel and what they want to take away, you're in a good position to help shepherd the conversation in the right direction.

Quick note: I intentionally left a stakeholder out of the intent discussion... you, the moderator. You don't matter. Your job is to make everyone else shine. If you're doing your job well, everyone else looks better than you. If you want to self promote or be the star, then you're in the wrong chair.

Empathy

Both during your prep and during the panel itself, you need to maintain a high degree of empathy for both the audience and the panelists. Keep in mind that your audience has a certain level of understanding that might be equal to or significantly less than your panelists. You should be guiding the conversation to make sure they're getting what they came for.

If a panelist is going way too deep for the audience, then ask a reframing question to help simplify. Start with something like, "How would you summarize that for someone who isn't in our industry?" or "That's really interesting, and I see you know a ton about this. When you hire someone new to our business, how do you normally explain that to them?"

Conversely, if you have an audience of experts and a speaker who is glossing over a topic, you can prod them to go deeper. "That's so cool. Can you tell us a little more about how XYZ works?"

A word of caution on asking people to go deeper... While you're showing audience-empathy by making sure they get what they came for, you also need to show speaker empathy. Most speakers have imposter syndrome, and their main goal is to get out of the panel without being embarrassed.

If you get the sense that a speaker is floundering or may not be able to go as deep as you might have hoped, you can often help redirect without anyone noticing. Say something like, "That's really interesting, I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, so I'm going to ask [other panelist] to chime in on the same topic."

Great conversation is like a river, it doesn't stop and start, it just flows. If someone is struggling (or making an ass out of themselves by dominating the panel), your job is to gently redirect the river without building a dam. Redirecting to another panelist or asking a question that is a little more or less specific does this smoothly without creating awkward breaks in the flow.

Focus

No matter how long or short your panel is, the audience will only be able to take away a few key points. You can help, by making sure you and the panelists know what those topics are beforehand and then providing structure and summary.

Oftentimes, event producers will create panels a year in advance without knowing who will be on them or what the state of the world will be when the panel convenes. They'll have a general topic like "The future of tech in our industry" or "How to motivate people in your sales organization". These general topics can go in a million directions (and they often do).

As a moderator, lay this on the table during your prep session. Ask each panelist for one key point that they want to deliver and then make sure to keep the conversation focused on just those sub-topics. Especially when doing web-based panels, it's helpful to tell the audience in the intro that these are the topics they'll be hearing about. (Secretly, you're also reminding the panelists who probably forgot to review their notes.)

Attack each topic sequentially and at the end of each one, make sure there's a clean transition. Keep a notepad and write down one or two key words you heard. Then say, "That was great. It was very helpful to hear about X and Y, which we can all take away as a learning. Now we're going to move on to [next topic]."

You can do the same at the end. Use the last 30 seconds to quickly hit the key topics again with one or two words on each. This will tie the panel up without letting the last topic overwhelm the others.

I'll use that technique to wrap up this article...

"I hope everyone got a ton out of this session, I know I did. Being able to tie general ideas like intent, empathy, and focus, to hosting a panel is powerful. Specifically, remembering that the audience and panelists have different motivations and that it's the moderator's job to align them is something we can all take away."

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