No one thinks that putting on sneakers is enough preparation for running a 5K.
But lots of people seem to think that handing microphones to a few folks is enough preparation for a panel discussion. (It’s not.)
If you’re going to be leading a panel, these steps will prepare you and your panelists for success.
Step 1: Don’t Just Choose Your Panel’s Topic, Choose Your Goal
While a topic tells you *what* the panel is about, your goal describes *how* your audience will think, feel, and maybe act differently because of it.
To find the goal for your panel, ask yourself,
What kind of experience do I want the audience to have (funny, scholarly, thought-provoking, etc.)? And what do I want people to take away from this experience?
Here are some examples of the difference between topics and goals:
TOPIC: Aquifers (permeable rocks that contain or transmit groundwater)
GOAL: Understand why aquifers are endangered (politically, geologically, etc.), and how people can help protect them.
TOPIC: Public Speaking
GOAL: Learn about the many ways people can approach this skill, and the benefits of speaker coaching.
GOAL: Provide an entertaining look at the role coffee has played in many societies, including ours.
Steps 2: Invite Panelists Who Can Help Your Panel Achieve its Goal
People often choose their panelists by asking,
Who should we invite?
That’s not a bad question, but it isn’t specific enough. It’s how you end up with panels that contain,
- The organizer’s friends;
- Colleagues who “need” to have face time in front of the audience;
- Speakers who weren’t good enough for the main stage but “need” to be included; and
- People who are up there for reasons that no one seems to understand.
To avoid this fate, ask yourself,
What points of view and/or bodies of knowledge will help this panel reach its goal?
In the Aquifer example above, I don’t just want scientific experts — I also want at least one panelist who’ll talk about actions that people can take.
In the Coffee example, I want to entertain my audience (that word is in my goal statement!), so I’ll look for people who can be delightful, know interesting things, and/or have an entertaining perspective.
And in the Public Speaking example, I want to drive home the value of coaching, so my panelists might all be speaker coaches, but they’ll have a wide range of personalities, backgrounds, or perspectives. (Speaker coaches often come from disciplines like acting, music, or journalism, but some start out as athletes, cancer survivors, even — like world-renowned Patricia Fripp — hair stylists.)
Step 3: Give Each Panelist a Clear Assignment, and Specific Questions They Can Prepare
Once you know your desired outcome… and know what each of your panelists brings… it’s not hard to give them individual assignments. (“Hilaury Stern, I’d like you to focus on how acting exercises help your speaker coaching clients.” “TJ Walker, please talk about why media training is so important.” And “Patricia Fripp, please tell us about how your client Larry helped you move from hairdressing to public speaking!”)
Now you’re ready to create questions that highlight each of these topic areas or points of view. This process will help your panelists connect with your goals and each other, while it strengthens your content (and if you don’t have time, or enough panelist attention, to complete all of these steps, at least share your game plan and questions with your panelists):
- First, share your thoughts about who gets which assignment on the panel (your panelists may have a better idea about how to organize things). If this can be done in a group phone call, the pay-offs are tremendous; your panelists will get more comfortable with each other as they organize their content.
- During or after the initial call (or email), show everyone the questions you plan to ask each person, and request feedback.
- Then crunch everyone’s input, write up a summary of your game plan (with specific questions, and one or two that anyone could answer), and send it to everyone, again requesting comments.
And one more thing: When questions are “finalized” — in quotes because nothing is ever final in a live presentation — ask your panelists to practice their answers out loud (if it’s not out loud, it’s not public speaking practice) and to work on keeping answers short, and minimizing repetition.
Let them know that you’ll step in (i.e., interrupt them) if they wander too far, repeat oft-made points, or abuse the time limits you’ve given them.
Is That All There Is To Creating a Great Panel?
No, this is just the preparation phase.
There’s still work to be done during the panel, whether you’re moderating, or someone else is.
But these steps will put you on the right path… help forge your panelists into a team… and ensure that everyone who’s on stage together is on the same page together.
And that’s a very strong start!