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Hosting a Virtual Panel Discussion: One They’ll Remember

A well-planned panel discussion can be both a great stand-alone virtual event and an excellent addition to an event lineup. But how do you make it all work? The key to a successful virtual panel discussion lies mostly in two aspects: the panelists and the moderator. But those aren’t the only factors!

What Is a Panel Discussion?

A panel discussion is a discussion format where a group of people discuss an idea or topic, typically before an audience. This session format is a mainstay of meetings, conferences, and conventions.

Panel discussions usually include three to five panelists, plus a moderator. Panelists are chosen for their knowledge of a specific industry or industry niche.

The panel moderator, in contrast, doesn’t have to be an expert. It does help if they have some industry knowledge, but the moderator’s role is more about keeping discussion flowing, ensuring panelists stay on track, and making sure everyone has an equal chance to speak.

The discussion is the main event for this type of session, but many panel discussions also incorporate audience questions into the mix. Although the core format is straightforward, panel discussions are surprisingly versatile. They can work as either a formal or a casual session. It’s all about how you choose your participants and present the material.

Why Host a Panel Discussion?

Synergistic format: A well-chosen panel develops its own kind of synergy, with panelists playing off one another’s ideas. Often, the panel comes up with ideas and insights you wouldn’t see in a one-on-one interview.

High engagement: Discussions are typically more entertaining than interviews, fireside chats, and other low-key formats. This means they’re more engaging too. This is especially important with virtual sessions because it’s harder to keep virtual audiences engaged. Audience questions slot neatly into this format, adding an interactivity factor that helps boost engagement.

Low preparation needs: Because a panel is a mostly off-the-cuff format, panelists don’t need to do extensive preparation ahead of time. Some preparation is necessary but much less than for a keynote or slide presentation.

Easy to convert to virtual: Panel discussions are ideal for live events, but they’re equally at home in virtual events too. It’s such a flexible format, you can even hold a virtual panel discussion where the panelists, moderator, and audience are all in separate locations.

How to Execute a Successful Virtual Panel Discussion

The most important elements of a virtual panel discussion are, of course, the people you choose as panelists, as well as the moderator. But there are other elements to consider too.

1. Define Your Parameters

To plan a successful virtual panel discussion, start by answering these basic questions:

What’s the purpose of this session? Is this a standalone session, or is it part of the content schedule of a full-day or multi-day event? Discussion panels often play a dual role because they offer both information and entertainment. In a full day’s worth of workshops or seminars, a lively panel discussion can be an effective way to boost engagement.

What’s in it for the audience? Again, this is about balancing information versus entertainment. For a panel discussion, it’s usually a bit of both. You want your audience to feel like they’ve learned something and had a good time watching.

What’s your discussion topic? A good topic isn’t just relevant to the industry, it also ties back to your event theme and even the event host. If you can choose a topic that fits these criteria and resonates with your audience, it’s a great start.

2. Choose Your Panelists

It’s not always an easy task to find the perfect panelist group, especially if you’re looking for candidates in a niche industry. It’s not enough to just pick a handful of experts. Your panelists should also fit a few other criteria too:

  • Have an interesting or unique perspective on the discussion topic – It doesn’t need to be controversial, unless you’re specifically playing up that angle.
  • Have good communication skills – They should be able to talk about the subject in an entertaining way—while on camera. For a virtual panel discussion, some experience with virtual events and virtual discussion formats is nice to have. You don’t want a panel full of newbies who become camera-shy when being filmed.
  • Have a strong personality, without being overbearing – In a heated discussion, they can hold their own, but they won’t lose their temper.
  • Able (and willing) to do some preparation – It doesn’t have to be extensive, but it does make for better conversation when panelists can introduce or reference key facts, statistics, or case studies.

In terms of group makeup, make a point of including people with different industry backgrounds and views. For a lively, insightful discussion, bring together people who approach the topic from different perspectives.

3. Find a Panel Moderator

Panelists are one of the most important factors for a successful panel discussion. But even more important than the panelists is the moderator. Their ability to perform the role well is vital. It’s the moderator who guides the flow of discussion and steers the conversation to a satisfying conclusion.

In addition, they have to do all of this without inadvertently dominating the conversation. They must also ensure none of the panelists do so either. It’s a difficult task, especially when panelists have strong personalities and differing opinions. Because of this, the moderator should themselves have a strong personality and be able to handle difficult or contentious situations.

Finally, since the panel moderator’s role is such a vital one, it’s best to choose someone with experience with online events. They don’t necessarily need experience with virtual panel discussions specifically, but they should have experience as a virtual speaker or moderator, as well as live moderator experience.

Note that while the moderator does need to fit the above criteria, one thing they don’t need is an extensive knowledge of the industry or topic. It can be useful if they do have some background knowledge, but it’s definitely not required.

4. Cover Your Virtual Bases

For a live panel discussion, all your participants need is to do some light preparation and then show up at the session. For a virtual discussion, there’s a little more preparation needed to make sure it all runs like clockwork.

Once you’ve selected your panelists and moderator, schedule a preparatory video conference call prior to the event. During this meeting you can:

  • Go over the discussion topic, the purpose of the session, and what you want the audience to experience
  • Introduce your panelists and the moderator. Some people may know each other already, but for those who don’t, it’s a good chance to break the ice.
  • Run through a tutorial on how the virtual event platform works, and check that everyone has their equipment set up correctly.
  • Rehearse the moderator’s introductions and/or panelists’ opening remarks.

5. Focus on the Audience

The panel discussion is the main event, but never forget who it’s for: the audience. They’re not the stars of the show, but they’re very important. Especially for a virtual panel discussion, it’s important to focus on engagement from the start of the discussion all the way through to the end.

Some ways to do this might include:

  • Instead of having an audience Q&A at the end of the session, ask the moderator to seed audience questions throughout.
  • If your virtual events platform allows, use real-time analytics to monitor viewer counts and engagement figures. Use real-time polls and other interactive features to solicit audience feedback and opinions during the session.
  • Choose a discussion format that invites more audience participation. One option is the Empty Chair, in which audience members are invited at random to sit on the panel for a few minutes at a time.

Virtual Panel Discussions Offer an Engaging Option for Online Sessions

Panel discussions are a tried-and-true format, often enjoyed just as much for the entertainment factor as the insights they provide. With this combination of enjoyment and information, they’re an ideal format for virtual conferences and events, including hybrid events. Why not slot a virtual panel discussion into your next event?

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