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A panel can be a very effective technique for sharing information on a particular topic at a conference or tradeshow.  The panel format is becoming increasing popular alternative to formal PowerPoint presentation sessions.   Many have found that the multi-speaker, informal nature of the discussion tends to lead to more audience attention.  However, there are several best practices that should be employed to ensure that the panel does not fall into the pitfalls commonly associated with formal PowerPoint presentations.

Here are ten recommendations that I have for panel moderators seeking to optimize their conference sessions:

  1. Find interesting panelists – The ideal panelist is very knowledgeable about the subject matter.  He or she should be a recognized authority within the industry or possess strong credentials that generate credibility quickly once explained.  Much like good speakers, strong panelists should be animated using hand gestures and enunciation when speaking.  And what separates a good panelist from a great one is the willingness to be opinionated and to take a controversial position on a topic.
  2. Consider the mix – Ideally you would have panelists which represent different positions on a particular topic.  They should also have different backgrounds or roles.  A sure win is to include an end-user customer.  Industry analysts, bloggers, and journalists are good choices for both panelists (or as a moderator).  Employees from your own company can be effective as well, but I suggest limiting it to one.  Representatives from other vendors, especially consulting firms are also strong choices.
  3. Giving the introductions – Request that the panelists provide their bios to you in advance.  Print out copies for distribution to the audience or have them on a pre-loaded slide deck that can be displayed during the introduction.  Be sure to print out and read through the bios in advance.  Underline or circle the key aspects of the panelists’ background that will build credibility with the audience.  Don’t read the bio word-for-word.  Recite only the important details in your own words.  And maintain eye contact with the audience while giving the introductions.
  4. Preparing the questions – Pick some topics that will introduce some controversy and open discussion. Make sure you have at least 1-2 questions in which there will be strong disagreement between 2 or more of the panelists.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions which might encourage feedback about the host of the venue.  Also, I encourage you to be realistic about the amount time you will have.  Be sure to have potential follow up questions prepared if you happen to spark a good discussion that you want to pursue in greater depth.  Sequence the questions so that the most important ones fall second, third or fourth so that you know they will be adequately addressed.
  5. Share questions in advance – Give the panelists access to the questions in advance. In fact, I would encourage you to involve the panelists in the development and formulation of the questions.  Many participants are nervous about the unstructured, open format of a panel.  They will perform better when they have greater confidence about the topics being asked.  However, it is critical that you do not create the appearance that the panel is rehearsed.  Panelists should not bring notes with them to avoid the temptation to read prepared remarks.  I suggest asking the questions out of sequence to keep the panelists on their toes.
  6. Asking the questions – Definitely take the list of questions with you so you can remember the sequence and improvise as necessary.  But don’t read the questions off the sheet!  You should know them off the top of your head.  Again, make eye contact with the audience during the question.  Ask them in more of a natural speaking manner rather than just reading the exact question word-for-word.  Ideally, you would relate the question to a discussion topic that has been mentioned earlier at the conference or during the panel.  Direct the question towards a specific panelist whose is prepared to begin the discussion.
  7. Add your own value – As the moderator you should be more than just asking questions and watching the time.  You should add your own opinion and perspective to the issues.  Ideally you can do this by adding leading remarks on a topic before formally posing the issue to the panelists.  Additionally you should add remarks between or after the panelists have commented.  You should attempt to add remarks which provide an effective transition between the last question and the next one.
  8. Limit the Answers – Don’t let every panelist answer every question.  Ask 2 out of 3 to answer each.  Otherwise you will find that you will not have sufficient time to ask a broad range of questions.  Ideally you want your panelists to be competing to get a word in.
  9. Take audience questions– With 10-15 minutes remaining in the panel ask the audience if they have any questions.  An alternative approach is to place note cards on the seats of each chair prior to the session start.  Ask audience members to pass the note cards towards the center aisle where someone can collect them for you.  The advantage of the note card approach is that it allows you to filter and prioritize the questions albeit with only short notice.  Be prepared with additional questions to fill the remaining time in the event that you do not receive any appropriate ones from the audience.
  10. Record the Panel – Consider recording the panel discussion.  Then have the audio file transcribed.  You can post the transcription on the web for others to read.  Take excerpts from the transcript to use in follow up communications to panelists and post-conference blogs.  Vendors should consider posting the transcript in HTML on their web site to improve search engine optimization.
Steve Keifer

Steve Keifer has led marketing and product management teams at seven different SaaS and cloud providers ranging from venture-backed, early-stage startups to multi-billion, publicly traded companies - including several that experienced hypergrowth, filed IPOs, and reached unicorn status. In Bantrr, Steve shares many of the best practices and lessons learned from building and scaling marketing organizations. Topics include new category creation, brand development, and demand generation.

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