The art of facilitating panel discussions

Extract information from the expert panelists and transmit the learning to everyone in the room.   

Extract information from the expert panelists and transmit the learning to everyone in the room.


There's an art to facilitating a panel discussion.

As a facilitator, your overarching goal is to help the expert panelists share the most important information in the shortest amount of time and connect with everyone in the room. The moderator also shapes the interactions among all of the panelists.

Sounds pretty easy, but then why are so many panel discussions pretty bad?

It's often because the moderator focuses on the panelists instead of the audience. Recipient-oriented communications is the correct point-of-view.

These five elements will help ensure you are centered on the audience:

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 describing their main point.

That's their "home run" answer. Also, ask them to email you one or two other questions or comments they'd like to make. Your panelists are usually the best source for content for the audience, but only if you discuss it ahead of the presentation.

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 start by saying, "You have in front of you bios and contact information for each of our terrific panelists. We're going to focus our time on learning from them, instead of about them." A best practice is to edit them all into a consistent style and length.

No audience member is ever upset by eliminating lengthy introductions.

3. Deliver a "home run" answer with each panelist's 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 such as, "What's the most important attribute you seek when looking for a consultant in the 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 Sunday morning news program. This approach effectively connects questions with answers. 

4. Create dialogue between connect the dots.

After the first round of questions, move from monolog to dialog. With your prepared and approved questions, connect the dots.

As Frank Kingdom said, "Questions are the creative acts of intelligence." A truly skilled facilitator bridges the conversation with questions such as, "Fred mentioned passion and Mary focused on integrity, but I know one of the most important traits for you, Joe, is inquisitiveness. How do you balance these needs?"

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 that transcends good planning.

5. Offer each person on the panel one 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 initial home run answer and provides a sense of closure to the panel discussion.

Remember, your 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 their most important points.