Clear Comm Consulting

How to Run a Great Panel Discussion

Apr 24, 2014

The inspiration for this Monthly Memo comes from an event I am working on right now (!) so the lessons are very real. Any time you are asked to host a panel discussion there are things you can do to make it work smoothly and shine a comfortable light on your panel members. As with many examples, steps are taken before the event ever happens to ‘set it up for success’ but there are also things you can do while it is happening. Let’s take a look at both:

Pre-meeting #1: When you are running the panel discussion you’ll need to know the strengths of your panel members so meet by phone before your scheduled date. The panel members will get to know each other and you’ll get a feel for who is chatty and who might need some encouragement! This time also gives the panelists a chance to let you know what topics they are comfortable with and what they would just as soon avoid. As the discussion leader, you also get a chance to set the rules and expectations. Is there a dress code? Let them know about that. How will question and answer time be handled? Set the rules now! The more you can tell them about the audience also helps ensure a successful experience for everyone.

Pre-meeting #2: On the day of the event, have a short in-person version of the phone conference before the meeting begins. It serves to remind the panelists what is expected of them and re-establishes you as the leader of the effort. All of this also calms any nerves anyone might have beforehand.

The final minutes: Okay, now the room is filling up and you are about to start! Walk the room and get a feel for who is there. Do you have any unhappy campers in the group? You want to know that early! Encourage people to fill some of the up-front seats so you don’t have a moat between you and the audience. Does the microphone work? How is the sound system? If visuals are being used are they set? Just know that some of that stuff can fail you. Be prepared to work without all of the elements you have planned and you will be extra happy when it all works!

Finally, you are ready to go.

Showcase the Stars of the Show: Remember that, while you may run the event, the real stars should be your panel members and the audience. Set the stage for your audience, explain the rules of the event (when you will take questions and how, for example) and give a brief, specific introduction for your panelists. There is no need to read their full bio! Why are they here today and what will they address?

Turn the Stage to Them: As the discussion really kicks off, where will you be? Perhaps you turn the stage over to them completely by going into the audience. A wireless microphone affords you that opportunity. As you move ahead, watch the body language of the audience. Are they engaged? What topic brings a reaction? And most importantly, listen closely to your panel. Your questions can be sparked by ‘in-the-moment’ observations and the audience will appreciate the unrehearsed conversation that is happening right in front of them! Good luck and let me know your thoughts on this topic.


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Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Scottsdale, AZ communications consulting firm that helps people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected].

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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