I have a confession to make: if I have the option of choosing between attending a speaker panel and watching paint dry, I’ll probably chose the latter. It isn’t about the skill, knowledge, or subject matter of the panel, it’s that often attending a panel is like some sort of weird invasion of a conversation; the audience is more or less eavesdropping on someone else's conversation and that can get, well, boring. Having said that, I have recently attended some pretty awesome panels, and there are a few distinct differences that are actually pretty easy fixes to take your panel from “meh” to “AWESOME!”
1) Give the panel plenty of time to prepare
It’s easy to call a friend, an expert in the field with whom you are familiar, or a speaker you’ve already seen and ask him or her to participate in a panel. The problem is that asking someone to speak is a lot different (and a much bigger ask) than asking someone to participate in a panel, but your panelists have to do more than just chat on stage with each other in order to really engage an audience. The way to combat this is to get commitments early, let the panelists know who they’re working with, what the audience will (hopefully) be like, and prepare them well.
2) Encourage synergy among the panelists
Introduce your panelists as soon as you can if they don’t already know each other. Have them collaborate on what they’re sharing, what they’re experts on, and what they can each uniquely contribute. Encourage creativity and working together. Although they all may be experts on different subjects, they all are going to be sharing that stage and they want an attentive and engaged audience just as you do!
3) Get questions from the audience (install a plant if necessary!)
Speaking of audience engagement, allowing a little back and forth can be the biggest difference between a snooze-fest and an engaging panel discussion. Being allowed to ask questions at some point will make the audience more attentive. Ask a friend or colleague to sit in the audience. That way if a shy crowd doesn’t jump on the Q&A opportunity, your friend will open it up. Hopefully that’ll spur more contribution!
4) Have a great moderator
Anyone who’s ever put on a live event of any kind knows that one of the biggest risks is runaways- crowds who won’t hush up, speakers who go too long, conversations that just won’t come to an end. Make sure you have a moderator who is comfortable with picking up the conversation when it drops off but more importantly is okay with cutting people off or interrupting politely if necessary.
5) Make room for A/V
Speeches are so 1998. Allow panelists to present short videos or slides, if applicable, or at least have some on deck when certain topics are addressed. This is an obvious boost that many people overlook when planning a panel discussion. Visuals make a big difference in every presentation!
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