Success is all about getting the audience engaged

Panel discussions are integral to many events. The goal, of course, of bringing together several voices is to offer your attendees a thought-provoking discussion from different perspectives. But choosing the speakers, moderator and even the discussion topic can be challenging. How do you ensure the discussion stays on track and on topic? How can you boost the chances your audience stays engaged?

Here are five pro tips curated from planners that can help.

Finding the Right Topic

The panel, it goes without saying, should be a valuable addition to the event you’re planning rather than a waste of attendees’ time. Honing the topic is therefore crucial. Too vague and it won’t peak attendees’ interest, and speakers may meander too much. Too specific and there may not be much to say about it. There should be a whiff of controversy, or uncertainty, that will invite differing points of view and alternate ways of addressing the issue under discussion.

Ultimately, panelists are speaking to inform and enlighten. If you are planning a leadership conference, pick a subcategory of leadership or a particular issue that group is facing—a topic that doesn’t stray from the agenda, but instead supplements it.

And remember, your topic is also marketing: The more alluring and relevant, the more attendees will want to, well, attend.

A Balanced Discussion

Now that you have a solid direction for the discussion, you’ll need to fill it with panelists. An unbalanced group can be uncomfortable for both those on stage and the audience. Avoid inviting panelists who are not industry experts unless the topic calls for some particular outside expertise—in psychology or tax law, for example. Otherwise, although certain individuals may have been chosen to “round out” the discussion, they can end up not being a part of it at all. The last thing you want is for the panel to be a monologue or have less-than-full participation.

Picking a Moderator

The key to a successful panel is the moderator. A panel discussion thrives on the free flow of ideas, but this can quickly spin out of control if not kept in check. The moderator makes sure the panelists, and, more importantly, their ideas, connect with the audience. The moderator is a facilitator who keeps a lively and informative conversation focused and moving. The job can be as challenging as herding cats.

Simply picking an industry guru to moderate does not guarantee success. Does this expert have a personality to maintain control and, just as importantly, to be an active listener and mediator of the discussion? No one, including the moderator, should be allowed to be too long-winded, and a good moderator understands people are in the audience to ask questions. The best panel discussions let the attendees guide the conversation.

Making Sure Your Audience is Happy

For a true conversation between the panel and audience, ask your moderator to get the audience involved early, and to encourage participation and engagement.

An easy way to do this is for the moderator to ask some questions after the panelist introductions: “Now that you know who we are, I’d love to understand who’s in the audience. How many here work in sales? How about marketing? What other areas? How many are middle managers or above? How many have worked at the company for more than five years?” Those are only examples of how to get the audience sized up, but you get the idea. If you’ve chosen the right panelists, they will tailor their comments to these specific roles and backgrounds. And the moderator will steer the discussion toward them.

Following Up

You had a successful discussion, leaving your attendees with more knowledge than they arrived with. The speakers were balanced, the moderator wasn’t overpowering or boring, and the audience was engaged and included. Now what are the calls to action?

To keep the conversation going, encourage social media buzz around the panel (and the entire event), and make sure to reply to all comments and reshare. Send thank-you notes to any feedback you receive on social platforms. You may even want to urge appropriate meeting leaders to follow the most active members of your audience.