How to survive a panel discussion

I’ve recently participated in a number of panel discussions, both as a panellist and MC, and here are my top 10 tips for getting it right.

In many ways participating in panel discussions is a lot easier than delivering formal presentations. Generally you are sat down, you have someone to talk directly to so a more conversational style emerges and its ok to have a notebook as reminder of your key points or discussion items. In fact as an MC it gives you an important opportunity to jot down ideas as they emerge and then direct discussion to follow up on interesting concepts.

So here are 10 tips for getting the most out of being on a panel:

  1. Do your research – find out and understand your topic area. It’s no good getting up on stage then finding you’ve got nothing to say!
  2. Get to know the others – preferably meet your other panellists and MC beforehand. You should ideally have had some exchange with the others in the group before the big day (either face to face, on the phone or by email), and should have an understanding of the key questions/issues the MC will raise. This will give you an insight into what topic they are likely to want to talk about or defend.
  3. Know your role and story – You need to be clear what role you are playing in the panel. Are you for or against the topic area or posed questions? Are you debating specifics with other panel members or supporting an overall idea? Make sure that your arguments are consistent with your overall stand point. It’s not very powerful if you regurgitate a number of unrelated facts if they are not contributing to your overall position on a topic.
  4. Shock and awe – make sure you have a number of impressive stats about the topic area. Key stats always go down well. For impact you can also repeat them – slowly.
  5. Joke and please – other ways to get the audience on board is to make jokes and make them laugh. I’m not talking about a ‘three men went into the bar’ type joke but raise humorous anecdotes. Also it’s useful to think about where the majority of your audience is likely to stand on a topic. You’ll get them quickly on side if you make some statements you know will appeal to the room. A ripple of applause from the audience is powerful show of support for all. Once you have a crowd on side and engaged you can engage in a wider range of discussion topics.
  6. Tell a story – cold hard facts are in many cases difficult to absorb. You may have thought about them for hours and perfected a couple of sentences to deliver this info. However your audience will need to go on the journey of knowledge discovery, similar to the one you went through in preparing your talk. Put the facts into the context of a story. Tell about your experience of an issue.
  7. Repetition works – just because another panel member raised an issue you wanted to talk about don’t presume that the audience won’t want to hear what you’ve got to say on the topic. They may have stolen your impressive stat, but you can support another panel member by adding to their comments, and by bringing that issue to life by recounting your experiences.
  8. Have a conversation – it’s easy to relax into that chair up on stage, but try to lean forward. You are having a conversation with the audience, and your other panellists, but most of all with the audience. Look at the audience when you talk, engage eye contact with people around the room; this will also give you critical feedback on how your discussion points are going down.
  9. Catching the MCs eye – when the MC asks questions of other panellists, or during the Q&A session at the end, if you have something else to add try to catch the eye of the MC to indicate you can contribute to a topic. If you’ve made a good contribution through the debate the likelihood is that the MC will come back to you first. If the MC doesn’t select you don’t make a fuss, and try not to dominate the Q&A session – the audience often has specific questions relevant to their understanding of an issue that they want to ask specific panel members.
  10. Enjoy it – most of all enjoy it. If you are having a ball up on stage the audience will see that and respond with their support.
Andy Lowe speaking at WOMADelaide Planet Talks 2019

And here are 10 tips for how to MC a panel discussion:

  1. Prep your team – run through the debate topic with your team before the big day. Ideally you will have had the opportunity to hand pick the panellists and their different viewpoints to contribute to an interesting discussion. But they will contribute best if they know roughly how the discussion will go and what the key questions will be. You can spring something unprepared on them if it comes up during the discussion, but an unprepared debate will come across chaotically and poorly.
  2. Panellists need to know their roles – make sure each panellist is clear on their role and contribution to a discussion topic. You are after a panel that presents a varied and interesting cross section of an issue. Allow the panel members time to outline their key position at the start of the discussion, and exchange ideas on what this should be with the other panellists so that they can cover new/complementary/opposing ground.
  3. Speak to the panellists – as MC its your role to start off the debate and address questions to the panel member that you want to answer – use their name at the start of a question so they have time to focus on the question and prep mentally
  4. Rotate around panellists – make sure they know the approximate order of questioning and issues that will be raised
  5. Judge audience and interest – if a panellist isn’t performing, limit their questions, or gently cut them off. The MC has alot of power in this type of forum and your audience will thank you for focussing in the most interesting topic areas and speakers.
  6. Provide segues – help provide a link between panellists answers and your next topic question or debate issue. The discussion will flow easier.
  7. Use humour– reiterating a panellists position with a humorous observation or short anecdote works well. As MC you can interject with your own position/thoughts, but you can’t dominate.
  8. The rule of quarters – leave at least 1/4 of time for questions from the floor at the end. The audience is likely to want to ask questions, but they may need time to think of a question. Give the audience a verbal cue that you will be allowing questions when you open the discussion (but ask them to save questions to the end if that’s how you want to run things), and on your final question to the panel also restate that you will be opening up the questions to the audience after this exchange. Sometimes it can take time for questions to emerge, or in some cases no questions are forthcoming; in this case as MC have some extra questions ready that you either prepare beforehand or along the way shaped from what the panellists have said.
  9. Cut off non-questions  sometimes a member of the audience may just want to say something that supports the position of a panellist or their own position. As MC you can say, ‘Ill take that as a comment’ and then move on to another question. Encourage the audience to ask short questions, and if the question is poorly framed try to help by rephrasing the question into a simple one for the panellists to respond to.
  10. Closing remarks – remember to thank panellists, audience and organisers at the end of the discussion. Everyone worked hard to get the result.

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