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Panel Discussion

6+ Options for Discussion at Your Virtual Event

Discussions can be a hugely successful addition to a virtual event content schedule. A good discussion is interesting and informative and adds value to any event. More importantly for virtual events, discussion sessions can be highly engaging. The key to making it work? Choose a virtual discussion format that works with your event and your audience—and that lends itself well to the online environment.

Virtual Discussion Formats for Virtual Events

1. Panel Discussion

Panel discussions are often seen at industry and academic events. They’re a common part of meetings, conferences, and conventions. This format typically includes an audience. It brings together a group of around three to five people, plus a moderator who guides the discussion and keeps panelists on-topic.

Panelists are usually experts or otherwise notable in their field of interest. With this format, there’s usually a dual focus on informing and entertaining the audience. This means panelists are often chosen for their personalities and opinions, as well as their expertise.

Panel discussions can work well for the virtual format because the right mix of panelists can be highly engaging. The option to add audience questions into the mix adds an interactive element that also boosts engagement.

Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Variants

Q&A/Remarks/Presentation Formats

These options allot varying amounts of time to extra segments, in addition to the panel discussion itself. Some options include:

  • Opening remarks: Each panelist has time allotted at the start of the session in which to offer some opening remarks. When this section isn’t included, the moderator does this for each panelist instead.
  • Presentations: Each panelist gives a short presentation before moving on to the discussion part of the session.
  • Q&A: Part of the session is an audience Q&A. With this variant, there are no audience questions until the end of the session—in contrast to other formats where audience questions are discussed throughout the session.

Presentation Format

This variation on the virtual panel discussion attempts to add more interactive elements to the session. It also gives audience members more of a say in the direction the discussion takes. This can be a great way to boost engagement in a virtual session.

In this variant, each panelist has a five-minute segment at the start of the session in which to give a short presentation. Once all panelists have presented, the audience decides where to focus the discussion.

Mainstage Format

This format has no presentations or audience Q&A. This can work for a virtual discussion format if the panelists have good chemistry. However, if the discussion isn’t sufficiently interesting or entertaining, engagement may suffer due to lack of interaction.

2. Town Hall

Like the panel discussion, the town hall is a Q&A-focused session with several panelists, a moderator, and an audience. However, the panel discussion is all about discussion between panelists. In contrast, the town hall focuses on interaction between panelists and the audience. Panelists are:

  • Experts or thought leaders
  • CEOs
  • Celebrities
  • Politicians
  • Other notable people

Town halls often address very specific issues, sometimes even one single issue or question. Because the focus is so narrow, there’s a risk that this virtual discussion format may feel stale. To combat this, the moderator must be able to keep the discussion flowing briskly and avoid spending too long on any particular facet of the topic.

3. Roundtable

The roundtable is another moderated group discussion format. Unlike a panel discussion, it doesn’t necessarily include an audience. Roundtables typically feature 6 to 12 participants, plus a moderator. Participants are chosen for their expertise within a particular industry topic or niche.

The intent for most roundtables is to bring people together to discuss, problem-solve, or share knowledge on a particular topic. The focus is on collaborative discussion and working towards a common goal.

4. Fireside Chat

A fireside chat is an interview-style discussion format. It’s usually structured as an informal conversation between two people. Some fireside chats include a Q&A session with audience participation, but the main focus of this virtual discussion format is the conversation between the interviewer and their subject. Fireside chats are often personal rather than purely professional or promotional. They provide the audience with a glimpse into a different side of an industry notable or celebrity.

Even without audience interaction, this can be an effective virtual discussion format if the interviewer and their subject have a good rapport. But because there are just two participants, a fireside chat can fall flat if the chemistry isn’t right.

5. Quickfire Q&A

With this fast-paced format, several speakers each have a total of 10 minutes—5 minutes for a presentation followed by 5 minutes of audience Q&A and discussion. This format is an effective way to present several angles or sides of a single issue, while ensuring each virtual presentation and discussion segment gets an equal share of the time.

To make sure this one goes off without a hitch online, make sure to schedule at least one rehearsal. Everyone who’s presenting should check their AV set up and run through their slide or screen presentations to ensure everything is working as it should.

6. Participatory Virtual Discussion Format Options

For some discussion formats, such as town halls and panels, event attendees are the audience. In contrast, the following virtual discussion formats are more about information-sharing, problem-solving, and active learning. These are for hands-on sessions where attendees are the participants, rather than the audience:

  • Brainstorming: Participants are divided into small groups. Each group receives a set of discussion questions, and all the groups then have 10 to 20 minutes to discuss their questions. After that time everyone rejoins the main group and reports their findings.
  • Fishbowl: People are selected at random to start the discussion. They’re “in the fishbowl.” At intervals, new people are chosen at random to enter the fishbowl to replace someone who’s already there. Discussion continues until everyone’s had a turn in the fishbowl.
  • Think-pair-share: Present an issue or question to the group. Each person has two minutes to think about it solo. Next, pair everyone up and give a further two minutes for paired discussion. Finally, everyone rejoins the main group to share all of their ideas.

Choose the Right Virtual Event Discussion Format

Many discussion formats originally designed for in-person discussion can work well as virtual discussion formats, but it’s often necessary to modify these formats in some way to make sure they’re successful online.

Formats such as brainstorming and think-pair-share, for instance, rely on being able to separate the main group into smaller groups. For a virtual session, this means breakout spaces where pairs and groups of people can chat privately. And to provide a good event experience, it should be possible for people to seamlessly transition between breakout spaces and the main session. It’s important to confirm that your virtual event platform can provide the infrastructure you need to make your discussion sessions work.

Whether it’s audience-based sessions such as town halls and panels or hands-on virtual brainstorming sessions, these discussion formats can add lots of value to a virtual event. Not all discussion formats are suitable for virtual events, so choose your format with a mind for what will most benefit your audience.

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