Marketing

What is a Panel Discussion? And How to Run One Like a Pro

Published on May 3, 2022 • Updated on September 6, 2022 • About 8 min. read

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Careful planning is the key to creating and implementing any successful event, so what should you be aware of when putting together a panel discussion?

Here we talk about what a panel discussion is, the different formats, types of discussion, and when to use them. And we also take you through the steps you’ll need to take to deliver a discussion that will resonate with your target audience.

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What is a panel discussion?

A panel discussion is a format that’s common for television shows and conferences, where a small number of guests (the panel) explore topics to share insights, express, and challenge opinions in front of an audience. There is usually a moderator, who helps guide the discussion, and members of the audience are often invited to ask the panel questions.

Synonyms of panel discussion

There are lots of terms used to describe panel discussions, many with a slightly different meaning or focus. Let’s look at some of them here:

What’s the difference between a panel discussion and a roundtable?

A roundtable is an informal and intimate format where the audience can be involved throughout the discussion.

What’s the difference between a panel discussion and a symposium?

A symposium is normally formal and academic and brings together subject matter experts. Experts make their own presentations, so there is less interaction between guests and the audience than there is during a panel discussion.

What is the difference between a panel discussion and an open forum?

An open forum is designed to incorporate as much audience participation as possible, traditionally with seating arranged to encourage lots of expert-audience interaction.

What is the difference between a panel discussion and a seminar?

A seminar is a way of presenting a topic for educational purposes. Traditionally held in an auditorium, there will be a small number of speakers or professors, with questions taken from the attendees at the end.

What are the different types of panel discussions?

There are three basic types of panel discussion:

  • Real-life – where the panel sits before an audience
  • Hybrid – where the real-life panel discussion is live-streamed and questions are taken from live and virtual audiences
  • Virtual panel discussion – where the entire event is held online using a video engagement platform like Livestorm to connect all the participants and facilitate communication
Hybrid panel discussion
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What are good examples of topics for a panel discussion?

If you’re stuck for ideas for suitable panel discussion topics, take a look at these suggestions for some inspiration:

Topical panel discussion topics

  • Solutions for the environmental crisis
  • The future of crypto
  • Challenges facing the West

Evergreen panel discussion topics

  • On health and wellbeing
  • The pitfalls of social media
  • What to know about startup funding

B2B panel discussion topics

  • How to automate your business
  • B2B marketing strategies
  • Using data analytics to empower your teams

5 panel discussion formats

Panel discussions can come in various formats, so pick that one suits your purposes best. Here’s a round-up of some of the most popular, all of which work well for real-life, virtual, and hybrid events.

Mainstage

Traditional mainstage panel discussions are your classic auditorium or theater events where the guest panel is mic’d up and on stage, normally for a paying audience. The nature of discussion can be educational, humorous, hard-hitting, or any combination of those, but ultimately it has to be informative and entertaining.

A mainstage discussion is normally hosted by an experienced interviewer or moderator (this could be the host of a podcast or radio show), and the panel might be made up of experts and celebrities. There’s usually an opportunity for audience members to direct questions to the entire panel or individuals.

For successful virtual mainstage panel discussions, you need a video conferencing platform like Livestorm that can take care of everything from event creation and promotion, to controlled and engaging in-event communication, to post-event analytics and marketing.

Q&A

With a Q&A format there’s usually an introductory discussion between panelists, followed by a series of questions posed by the moderator, and then further questions from the audience, which may or may not be vetted pre-event.

Q&A panel discussions translate especially well to virtual platforms with Q&A engagement features, which allow for live polls and question upvotes.

Debate

Debates work best when the discussion revolves around divisive subject matter – think climate change, politics, or open-plan offices.

Traditionally, debates start with each guest speaking their point of view before challenging each other with questions designed to expose holes in the other’s argument, followed by further questions from the moderator and audience. Finally, each guest makes a round-up speech before the audience votes for the winner.

For virtual debates, utilize live polls – not just to engage your audience, but also to understand their points of view, and even get feedback on your event.

Talk show

A talk show panel is based on a TV talk show setup, with two or three guests sat together to talk informally on the questions and topics the host gives them.

The key to a successful talk show panel discussion is chemistry between guests and host – and a host who’s charismatic with experience in leading a thoughtful, entertaining conversation for an audience.

Fireside chat

Somewhere between a talk show and Q&A, the fireside chat brings together a small group of guests for an informal interview. To emphasize that level of informality, guests could be sat together on a couch. Or, for virtual fireside chats, participants might be encouraged to be in their living room or even in a cafe.

Here, the focus is on creating a sense of intimacy to help bring about a candid conversation with lots of personal experience and insight. As such, fireside chats are a great format for less polemic topics, and instead ones that relate to self-improvement or stories of triumph in the face of adversity.

6 steps to a successful panel discussion

There’s no single way to have a successful panel discussion, but there are some key principles that are just about always practical to have in place.

Here are six key recommendations you should consider when running your first panel discussion:

Choose a topic that resonates

The best way to approach choosing your topic is to first think about your audience. Who would you like to be watching your panel discussion? Who would you like to attract and why?

So, if your target audience is within a specific industry – let’s say tech hardware – brainstorm topics that could be of interest to that group. But ideally, don’t do it alone – invite a small collection of people from within that target audience, who will give you unique insights into what catches their attention most.

Find an experienced moderator

A fantastic host can make or break your event, so where possible, choose someone who not only has experience moderating panel discussions (or similar types of events), but also someone who has some connection with your chosen topics and target audience.

A skillful, knowledgeable moderator will bring out the best in your panelists, understand how to engage and include the audience in the discussion, and also make their own original contributions to the talk.

Assemble your team of panelists

The best panels are made up of diverse groups who not only have expertise and authority but also charm, wit, and charisma.

Three to five guests is normally the perfect number, so everyone has the chance to make a meaningful contribution without the conversation ever drying up. If possible, avoid dominant characters who might drown out other guests, and invite people who have some experience speaking in front of audiences.

Provide your moderator with plenty of support

Even an experienced host with knowledge of the subject matter will benefit from meeting with an expert in the field who can guide them through the topics of discussion.

So try to organize a meeting – maybe for a couple of hours over lunch – where your moderator can ask an expert some key questions and gain an understanding of some of the nuances surrounding the areas of debate.

And once you’ve helped establish that relationship, your moderator will have someone to reach out to should they need any further support in the days leading up to the event.

Have everyone meet pre-event

As we’ve said, chemistry is just as important as subject matter expertise, so if possible, bring your guests and moderator together pre-event, where they can get to know each other and build up a rapport. This can have a huge impact on how well your guests are able to interact and support each other in-event.

Of course, bringing together a group of strangers can be difficult to organize, so use a video engagement platform that’s designed for fun virtual interaction, with special engagement features, like emoji reactions, chat panels, and breakout rooms.

Get this right and you’ll create a great atmosphere for an engaging panel discussion.

Audience listening to moderator

Choose a format for discussion that works for everyone

The final consideration is the best format for your topics, guests, and target audience. Here are some key factors that should come into play when deciding which format to choose:

  • Will you be able to bring your guests and audience together for a real-life event or will a virtual panel discussion be more practical to organize?
  • How much audience participation do you want or do you think is appropriate?
  • Do your main topics lend themselves to formal discussion (like a mainstage or debate panel) or intimate, candid reflection (like a fireside chat or talk show)?

Deliver the panel discussion your audience deserves

A panel discussion is a fantastic opportunity to bring together experts, thought leaders, and enthusiastic audiences – but a successful discussion requires careful planning.

To get the most out of your event, start by identifying your target audience and build your event around what’s realistic in terms of organization and what will resonate most. Once you’ve narrowed down the topics of discussion, choose an experienced moderator and settle on a format that will engage participants.

Frequently asked questions about panel discussions

Does a panel discussion need a moderator?

The moderator plays a crucial role in a panel discussion by guiding the conversation, keeping it relevant to the audience, and involving the audience where appropriate.

Can you script a panel discussion?

A panel discussion script outlines the structure of the occasion, including details like how to organize seating, how and when to introduce the guests, what topics and questions to begin with, and at what points and how to involve the audience.

What is the main purpose of a panel discussion?

Panel discussion gives experts and thought leaders the opportunity to express their opinions, challenge each other, and explore topics of discussion that provide value, insight, and entertainment for the watching audience.

How do you prepare for a panel discussion?

You should prepare for a panel discussion by following these steps:

  • Identify your target audience and choose topics that will interest them
  • Find an experienced moderator who can add value to your event
  • Select a diverse panel of experts who will interact well with each other
  • Allow everyone to meet and build a rapport before the discussion
  • Choose a format that’s suitable for your kind of discussion and realistic to organize

How can teachers use panel discussions as a method of teaching?

Teachers can recreate a talk show, debate, or mainstage panel discussion in the classroom by giving students a topic to investigate, opinions they have to support, and a highly structured format around which the conversation can take place.

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