Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 17 2015

Top 10 Reasons Your Panel Discussion Might Fail

By David McMillin



As meeting planners look to increase engagement and deliver more compelling educational sessions, one of the first solutions is adding more panel discussions to the conference program. More voices and fewer PowerPoint slides equals a better experience, right? Not necessarily.

At the 2015 PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Kristin Arnold, MBA, CSP, CMC, CPF, President, Quality Process Consultants, Inc., revealed a troubling statistic from a recent survey of more than 500 attendees who had recently participated in a panel discussion: 63 percent of them gave panels an “okay” or worse rating. With less than 40 percent of respondents giving above-average grades to panels, Arnold’s research uncovered the reasons why so many attendees are feeling dissatisfied with panels.

1)     Ineffective moderator.

“You should select a panel moderator the same way you would pick a speaker for your organization,” Arnold said.

From watching online clips to checking their references, Arnold says meeting planners should take extra care to ensure the moderator will be able to facilitate the discussion.

2)     Dominating panelists.

Everyone’s heard that guy — the one who won’t stop talking. The one whose voice always seems to be a bit louder than everyone else. The one who probably should have just given a solo presentation. This challenge goes back to the moderator who needs to make sure everyone has a chance to weigh in with an opinion.

3)     Unprepared panelists and moderator.

Putting people in a room doesn’t mean they’re going to have something to share. While panelists don’t need to rehearse their thoughts, it’s important to make sure everyone has a few key advance questions to guide the conversation.

4)     Out-of-control panelists.

Yelling, screaming, kicking — these are adjectives that should not describe anyone on the panel.

5)     Ego and self-promotion.

No one attends a panel to hear a sales pitch. While plenty of panelists may have specific company interests, a panel must be an unbiased discussion that covers big issues and trends without promoting products and services.

6)     No audience engagement.

When Arnold moderates panel discussions, she doesn’t join the panelists on-stage. Instead, she aims to join the attendees in the crowd.

“I want the panelists talking to the audience,” Arnold said. “It makes it feel more inclusive.”

7)     Off topic or off point.

In some cases, panelists may be former colleagues and friends. That can help make the session feel informal, but the conversation can quickly devolve into subject matter that doesn’t match the session description. The right moderator must keep the panel on track.

8)     Not a conversation.

When attendees go to a one-person lecture, they typically expect a rehearsed presentation. When they come to a panel, they’re searching for candid — and sometimes controversial — remarks.

“Your attendees want something unscripted,” Arnold said. “They want something they can’t get on YouTube. They’re looking for a real conversation.

9)     Poor time management.

Again, this issue relies on the moderator. He or she must watch the clock to pace the conversation appropriately and ensure there is adequate time to address specific questions and accomplish the session’s objectives.

10)  Too many panelists.

The point of a panel is to unite plenty of different perspectives, but too many voices can create challenges. Arnold believes that three or four panelists is the optimal number to inspire a strong discussion. As the number increases, the value of the panel may start to decrease.

Looking for more inspiration to develop a more innovative approach to panel design? Click here to check out how one organization reinvented the format.

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