How to Set Up a Panel Session

By Monica Compton, CMP, March 13, 2015

Planners have various presentation methods to consider for event speakers. There’s the visionary speaker who draws in attendees from the general session stage as well as the subject matter expert who educates during an intimate breakout session. Then there’s the panel. When do you use it in lieu of a solo speaker or co-presenter format? And how do you ensure a panel is diverse, interactive and able to engage attendees?

The benefit of a panel setup is that it is flexible to both general session and breakout formats. Your visionary leader can sit side-by-side with your subject matter expert. One panelist can give direction in a broad way, while another can drill down on the particulars of a topic. One can give strategic insight and another can explain how this strategy will be executed. The varied backgrounds and experiences of each speaker will create an interactive energy and provide an educational outlook not often found in a solo or co-presenter situation.

While these benefits make the panel format enticing, I’ve consulted with planners and cautioned organizations on its superfluous use. Some planners include the panel format to add value to sponsorship packages and give sponsors an opportunity to become knowledge experts. Others assign the moderator role to executive management, thus giving the executive a chance to showcase negotiation and leadership ability. These can be valid reasons for organizing a panel; however, the objective should always focus on the education of the audience. Will the attendee learn from varied viewpoints or are the panelists too far-reaching with experiences that are too adverse?

Selecting the panel members then becomes the most important and often most challenging aspect of the panel format. The key to the selection process is using your meeting’s overall educational objectives as a guideline. Perhaps you have created an objective that each session needs to include a solution that can be bolstered by technology. It would then be important to recruit one panelist who can speak to technological advancements. Not every panelist would need a technology background. The objective is satisfied by having one subject matter expert.

Once the objective is met, you can begin to consider other panelists based on how their backgrounds match the topic of the session. For example, I organized a panel on online registration management. This required a technology expert as well as planners who could provide case studies in using and managing online registration system tools. I needed two different types of experiences: planners who outsourced their online registration system to a third-party supplier, and planners who used an internal system created and customized by their organization. I wrote a “call for panelists” email and included an overview of the session topic and specific questions regarding their experience with the subject. It was important to write targeted, concise questions that revealed how versed they were in the topic and showed into which category they fell.

In addition to measuring their responses to these questions, I also looked at confidence in speaking in front of their peers. Since the panelist slots were filled on a volunteer basis, I had to focus more on their experience about the subject rather than on their speaking ability. Instead of asking a direct question about this ability, I determined their comfort level through their answers to the other questions. Did they complete each question fully and offer additional information to show their qualifications, or did they skip over a question or answer incompletely? If they were not comfortable answering the topic questions, how would they be comfortable answering questions in front of an audience?

When panelists receive compensation for participation, I request their resumes to see how often they have spoken in a breakout or general session format. For high-profile panels with well-known speakers, I request a video of past speaking engagements. I wouldn’t hire a keynote speaker without first hearing them speak, and the same holds true for paid panelists. Think of each panelist as a keynote: If one doesn’t have strong knowledge of the topic and hasn’t had presentation experience, it will bring down the level of the entire panel. Your attendees won’t remember that the other speakers were successful in delivering the message; they will only remember the one who wasn’t.

After the panel is chosen, decide on a moderator. A moderator needs to keep the discussion moving and keep the panelists and audience engaged. Beyond that, determine the other requirements for your moderator. Must he be a subject matter expert or a bipartisan coordinator? Also, consider personality. If one moderator candidate works for the same company as a panelist, the ability to moderate responses diplomatically might be compromised.

The last step is providing questions and session topics to the moderator and panelists in advance. Sometimes not all of the questions will be presented during the session or the moderator may choose to edit them on the spot. It is important for the moderator to have a strong ability to adapt to timing issues, audience questions and the dynamic of the panelists’ responses. The better the moderator is at keeping the conversation flowing and limiting the amount of time each panelist is speaking, the deeper the topic can be covered, and the more education the attendee will gain. Leave it up to the panel to meet in advance to review the panel format and how the session will go. This is advantageous if one or more members have never participated on a panel.

Download this sample panel outline to modify and send to moderators and panel members before your event.

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