Six Tips on How to Lead a Successful Panel Discussion
Your first appearance in the IT spotlight should be a shining success, not a career cremation.
You were hired for your technology and business expertise, not your ability to serve as a talk show host. Yet your job now requires you to lead panels at conferences, seminars and assorted other events.
For many IT pros, overcoming panel moderation anxiety can be as formidable a challenge as learning a complex new technology. Fortunately, much like coming to grips with a new product or system, planning and preparation are key to becoming a successful — and even sought after — moderator.
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To ensure that your first panel moderation appearance runs as smoothly as a fine-tuned network, consider these six points:
1. Plan early and carefully
Plan a meeting beforehand with all the panelists, in person or via a conference call. "Review their online presence so you have some sense of their experience and expertise and then have a discussion with them about what they think are the topic's most important aspects," advised David Erickson, principal of digital marketing firm e-Strategy Media and co-host of the Beyond Social Media Show podcast. "This will give you insight into what your panelists are excited about and allow you to form questions that tee-up the answers for them."
"Go over the format of the panel and the questions you'll ask," suggested Neil Thompson, founder of Teach the Geek, an e-learning service for STEM professionals. Remind them that, in the interest of time, they'll need to keep their answers brief. "The meeting will help build rapport between the panelists so that, on panel day, they will naturally interact with each other because they're no longer complete strangers," he added.
2. Build audience interest
A panel discussion is like any presentation, so having a coherent storyline is important. "Know what the answers will be before you ask your questions," said Katrina VanHuss, former chair of the Virginia Council of CEOs. Have panelists prepare their responses and vet them beforehand. "For spontaneity, throw in personal questions that pose no threat to your storyline," she added. "If you don’t have a storyline, you could end up with a debate on stage, which makes audiences uncomfortable, even if they are kind of fun."
Use your opening remarks to introduce yourself, your panelists, the discussion's topic and its format. "Let the audience know when they can participate," Erickson said. "If the audience is small, you might want to encourage asking questions throughout the discussion." For a large audience, it's probably best to reserve time at the end of the discussion for a formal Q&A session."
Have each panelist give a 10-second pitch about their background or introduce them in one swoop by yourself, advised Wiktor Schmidt, CEO of tech development firm Netguru. Also make sure to tell the audience something intriguing about the upcoming discussion, a fact, observation or other remark they'll want to pay attention to. "However you decide to structure your opening remarks, be sure to make them concise, clear and engaging," Schmidt urged. "You'll want to captivate your audience's attention early by ending the opening remarks with a topic or question that will create engaging debate," he added.
3. Encourage panel interaction
A moderator needs to dig deep into panelists' answers and ask pointed questions designed to spark light debate. "You want to create an interesting dialogue that introduces new and differing opinions to your audience," Schmidt suggested. "I’ve found success kicking off panels with a multi-faceted or thought-provoking question."
It's also important to actually listen to the panelists' answers as opposed to just moving on to the next question. "The answers will guide the discussion," Thompson explained.
"The worst moderators do what I like to call 'creeping death'," said Briana Brownell, founder and CEO of PureStrategy.ai, a company that creates AI systems designed to help employees make faster, data-driven decisions. That's when the moderator repeats the same question to each panelist. "There's virtually no interaction between panelists, and the answers are canned instead of candid," she explained.
4. Maintain firm control
Sometimes, a panelist needs to be shut down because they're sucking the air out of the room and not letting others talk, VanHuss warned. "This is entirely the moderator’s job, and the hardest one they have," she noted.
"Make sure to interject if a panelist veers into a long-winded talk," Schmidt advised. "Try to find a natural lull in the conversation and ask another question that's more on track." Schmidt also stressed the importance of holding panelists to their claims. "You want them to be prepared with examples or statistics to support their statements," he said.
5. Keep track of time
A moderator needs to know just how much time to devote to each question. "Create a simple outline of your questions that includes a timestamp to guide you when to move on to the next question," Erickson suggested. Put the information on an index card and it can serve as a cheat-sheet during the discussion.
Always have a timer on hand, Thompson recommended. "You can always cut questions if you're running long on time."
Leandro Margulis, vice president of maps APIs for TomTom, a traffic, navigation and mapping products developer, recommended having someone off-stage to help you keep track of time. "I always find it helpful if there's someone there to signal you," he noted.
6. Wrap it up neatly
End the panel with a question that will leave the audience with a substantial takeaway. "Questions about past experiences or advice work best in this spot," Schmidt advised.
Finally, after the show is over, take a few minutes to quietly reflect. "Trust that the people who asked you to moderate made the right decision," Margulis said. Remember, too, that practice makes perfect. "We all need to start by moderating our first panel at some point," Margulis observed.
John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and numerous business and technology publications, including Computerworld, CFO Magazine, IBM Data Management Magazine, RFID Journal, and Electronic ... View Full Bio
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