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May 15, 2014
By Beth Brooks, CAE

Unfortunately, most education panels I’ve seen rarely meet, let alone exceed expectations. At conferences, I have begun avoiding panels because they are not well run and I find I don’t get much useful information.

So why do these panel presentations receive poor reviews and fail? A lot of it has to do with the moderator.

Here are some thoughts on ways that panels can be improved:

1. The panel should be a conversation
Four mini-presentations plus five minutes at the end for questions isn’t a panel, its four presentations! And the panelists usually spend time repeating what another speaker just talked about (panelists, listen to the other presenters!). The session should be the panelists talking with each other in a conversation that is hopefully including the audience. The job of a great panel is to have meaningful discussion which naturally stimulates thought and questions from the audience.

2. The moderator should  know the subject and each panelist
This means the moderator has to do homework on the topic and interact with the panelists months before the session starts. The moderator needs to understand the subject and participate in the panel by asking good questions and probing for more clarification.

If you are assigning a moderator to handle a panel you must insist that they meet with the panelists. After talking with them, the moderator can outline the contents that must be covered. During the discussions of this content, everyone involved gets to know the other speakers and they become comfortable and acknowledge their strengths and knowledge. This leads to great dialogue and interaction.

3. The moderator should  introduce each person
You have seen it - either each panelist is allowed to tell about themselves or the moderator reads out pre-written bios on each. Both are boring and usually go on too long. Remember, most conferences have a title or bio of the speakers in their conference materials. Don’t eat up 10 minutes of the session just introducing the speakers. Tell the audience why each speaker is there – what do they bring to the table, why were they asked to speak? Again, this is where the moderator needs to know each of the panelists and their strengths.

4. Know how to moderate
Just as with any program, make sure the content matches the description in the program. This will become clear in those pre-discussions. If speakers don’t communicate ahead of time, they might get off track and talk about unrelated items. The moderator needs to know how long each section might take and keep them on time.

The moderator also needs to know when and how to shut down speakers that talk on and on. Again, those conference call discussions will help but when you have an passionate speaker talking too long, you need to have a way of stopping them. I have used a small bell to indicate the speaker’s time is up – do it in a playful, nice way.

5. Do not use PowerPoint
I’m in favor of banning slides altogether, but especially for a panel. A panel should be a think-tank and a place to create a dialog that happens nowhere else.

6. Different opinions should be heard respectfully
A real let down for an audience is when each panelist says the same thing (see point #1). But worse is when panelists disagree and get aggressive on making their points. Having different perspective on points make it very interesting, but the moderator needs to know when to break in and how to interact with the panelists when it gets a bit hot.

The moderators job is to make sure the panelist are organized, comfortable, and keep the conversation going. Also think about the setting: the room set up has a lot to with the interaction. So, final tips: don’t sit up on a stage behind a draped table. Think director’s chairs with the attendees circled around up close. Have some giveaways for the people who ask questions or give input. Make in casual and fun. I think it will result in happier attendees, better sharing of information and better survey results.

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