Let’s be honest. It’s hard to get excited about a panel discussion, no matter the issue. But for event planners, there are not many options for engaging several experts in conversation under tight time constraints, while also making sure each speaker gets an opportunity to deliver his or her message.
So we recently tested some new ideas. We helped organize a 300-person event to kick off the international Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The side-event was led by Concern Worldwide, the Maternity Foundation and five other partners, and focused on the imperative of scaling up innovations to save the lives of pregnant women and babies.
With six experts and only 45 minutes, we had to get creative with how to configure the speakers and keep the conversation flowing so that the audience (which included Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark) stayed engaged, and so that the panelists didn’t feel short-changed.
Here are five things we learned from our experience:
1. Speed things up. We brought all six panelists on stage at the same time, but we split them into two, fast-paced “speed panels,” each with a different theme. The moderator sat between the panels, engaging the first panel for 15 minutes and the second panel for the next 15 minutes. Finally, the panels “came together” for a joint Q&A for the last 15 minutes. Allowing all six speakers to interact led to a lively discussion, and because the moderator sat in the middle, she was able to quickly engage members of one group after the other. This prevented a lull between panels and saved time that panelists would’ve spent exiting and entering the stage.
2. Cultivate a real conversation. Audiences can tell (and are far more engaged) when a real conversation is taking place on stage. Rather than having speakers adhere to a script or over prepare their remarks, we worked with the moderator to ensure she cultivated an organic conversation. Some speakers were more comfortable with this approach than others. To make sure everyone felt at ease, we organized a run-through before the event so that the panelists became comfortable with each other, the moderator, and the pace and format of the panel. We also encouraged them to have their key messages in hand in case they needed to refer to them during the conversation.
3. Choose an awesome moderator. Having a nimble and enthusiastic moderator is essential. It truly makes all the difference. We had a well-known, charismatic and experienced journalist who made the panelists feel comfortable, brought humor to the discussion and instilled a lot of energy into the event. She also was very engaged from the beginning in the topic and perspective each speaker would bring, participated in calls with speakers to go over what they wanted to talk about, and attended our run-through to meet the panelists and answer questions.
4. Expect tough questions. The flip side to organic conversation is that you don’t know exactly what the moderator is going to ask or which direction she will take. We prepared our panelists to handle tough questions so that they could maintain control of the conversation and still convey their messages. Moderators (and interviewers!) can throw curve balls. With some coaching, your speakers will view them as opportunities, not burdens.
5. Create opportunities for your audience to engage with the speakers. Because of time and venue constraints, we could not allow the audience to ask questions of the speakers while they were on stage. So instead, we held a one-hour networking reception immediately following the event. It was extremely effective, with a majority of the attendees choosing to stay and mingle. Not only did this create a more interactive and engaging Q&A, but also it made the attendees feel part of the event and conversation.
Whether you’re planning a 45-minute panel or a two-hour panel, keep these tips in mind. Panels are a great way to bring voice to your client’s work and they are all the more effective if you keep your audience on their toes with a new format and a dynamic host.