The art of facilitating panel discussions

The art of facilitating panel discussions

October 7, 2014 • Eric Morgenstern • Blog

Presentations and Speaking

There's an art to facilitating a panel discussion. As a facilitator, your overarching goal is to help the smart panelists share the most information in the shortest amount of time. Importantly, your role as moderator also includes a responsibility to connect the dots between the panelists for a smooth flow of information.

How come so many people have it wrong?

First of all, the most important point of view is that of the audience, not the panelists’. With that in mind, here are the five keys to facilitate a terrific panel discussion:

1. Require all panelists to participate in a brief conference call about a week before the event.

Having each panelist spend just a few minutes preparing for the event helps ensure they have carefully thought about what they want to say, instead of just waking up the morning of the event and saying whatever is on their mind. During the call, ask each panelist to think about the single main point they want the attendees to learn from them. Have them send you an email with a simple paragraph / bullet points about their main point. That's their "home run" answer. Also, ask them to email you just one or two other questions / comments they'd like to make. The panelists are usually the best source for content, but only if you ask ahead of time, and in time to use it effectively.

2. Provide written bios that are distributed before the panel discussion begins.

Attendees want to learn from the panelists, not just about them. One surefire way to kill the energy in the room is to introduce each panelist with a laudatory list of accolades. What a waste of time. Simply say at the beginning, "Each of the panelists has provided a bio (perhaps you've had to edit them all into a consistent style or length) so you can learn about them. We're going to focus our discussion on learning from them, instead of acknowledging their exceptional qualifications."

3. Deliver a "home run" answer with the first question.

Determine the most logical order for the panelists to deliver their home run answers. That should be the first question each panelist gets. It's much easier to ask a good question when you already know the answer. For example, instead of a generic question like, "What's the most important attribute you seek when looking for a consultant in your industry?" try something like, "I know Mary has a short list of key attributes when seeking a consultant, but at the top of the list is integrity. Mary, help us understand why integrity is more important to you than expertise?" Yes, that's a leading question, but that's the point. This isn't “60 Minutes” or a nightly newscast. Remember, the goal is to share the information. This approach connects questions with answers in a more meaningful manner.

4. Create dialogue between connect the dots.

After the first round of questions, you should have a handful of prepared and approved questions. Here's what separates good from great: connecting the dots. As Frank Kingdom said, "Questions are the creative acts of intelligence." A truly skilled facilitator will bridge the conversation with questions such as, "Fred mentioned passion and Mary focuses on integrity, but I know one of the most important traits for you, Joe, is inquisitiveness. How do you balance?" Great facilitation requires a marine-like mindset. America sends the marines into hostile territory first. They're taught to "read and react." Is that a baby in the carriage or a bomb? Great facilitation requires reacting – more than just planning.

5. Give each panelist a "final comment."

As the panel nears the end, offer each panelist a final comment. The question can be as simple as, "Is there anything else you'd like to add?" This question will not surprise the panelists because you will have told them during the advance conference call that they will be given this opportunity. Suggest they use the final comment question in one of three ways:

  • To reiterate their "home run" answer
  • To comment on points just made by fellow panelists
  • To deliver another key point that hasn't been made yet

This creates a bookend from the home run and provides a sense of closure to the discussion.

Again, the goal is to help facilitate the knowledge transfer from the panelists to the attendees. There should never be a "gotcha" or a question they didn't expect.

Focus on the audience and help the panelists share the most important points. Remember, it's about the audience, not the panelists.

Onward and upward.