4. Create Conversations — As I have ranted about before, far too often the label “panel discussion” is a misnomer: The event instead is a set of presentations followed by a series of questions from the moderator to each panelist. The good news is, this creates a great opportunity for you: If you can actually get panelists talking to each other — to actually have a discussion at your “panel discussion” — both panelists and audience will be very pleasantly surprised. You’ll see smiles and greater engagement all around. Here are several ways to make it happen:
- “Don’t tell me, tell him” — Panelists should be encouraged to jump in at any point that’s not within a presentation. (Advice on directing traffic will be featured in a later commandment.) At some point someone will jump in to disagree with what another panelist just said; and whether or not someone jumps in, you should know where people stand on the issues you’re discussing, and elicit reactions from the panelists most likely to disagree. The person disagreeing will almost always direct their argument toward you, or the audience. Jump in and say: “Don’t tell me, tell him” — indicating the person the panelist disagrees with. “Explain to him why he’s wrong.” That simple instruction often subtly shifts the dynamic. Instead of giving a speech to everyone — and thus no one in particular — the panelist is now having a conversation with someone who holds the opposite view, and who will respond. The result can be two people each being more honest, and more convincing, than if they stuck to the usual talking points.
- Encourage Questions — Another easy one: encourage panelists to ask each other questions. If people are giving presentations, request panelists to come with questions about their fellow panelists’ work. In a more free-flowing format (which I prefer), after an especially intriguing panelist remark, you can ask if any other panelist has a question about it. Let panelists know that they are as free to jump in with questions as they are to jump in with a statement.
- Give panelists something to work on together — This takes more preparation to pull off, but the rewards are greater: Put two or more panelists in a scenario in which they must talk something through together. Some examples: Play a husband and wife discussing how they will respond to a neighbor’s attempt to stop a mosque from being built down the block; Play an executive committee crafting a statement on an unsubstantiated but widely-reported “scare” about one of their products; Conduct a press conference, with one or more panelists as the speakers and the others as journalists. For this technique to work, you need to make sure that you are bringing together panelists with some difference of opinion on the question, and that they’ve been given enough information to start working through the dilemma right away.