Forward Thinking

That ’70s Show

Paneling was all the rage in basement remodeling when I was growing up in the ‘70s. It was affordable, easy to install, and a sure sign of homeowner coolness. Today, paneling is a major turnoff for homebuyers. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Years ago, conference organizers took a shine to panels — experts perched on stools, each delivering mini-monologues — in the same way that homeowners took to installing wood paneling. It was an easy way to finish a den or basement; it was an easy way to dress up a session. Unfortunately, there are too few renovation plans under way for conference panels. Many planners still see this dated approach as an effective model for delivering learning. They couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are a few conference-panel myths in serious need of a reality check:

  • It’s a fast and easy way to showcase a diverse group of experts. Reality check: Most panels are made up of like- minded people. Hence, the endless head nodding and “me too” comments.
  • It’s easier to recruit panelists, because it requires little to no prep time. Reality check: Panelists who wing it are a big turn-off.
  • Panel discussions are organic. Great ones aren’t planned — they just happen. Reality check: If you’re watching a riveting panel discussion, chances are there was a smart moderator who prepped panelists and mapped out nearly every discussion point.

Here’s a four-point improvement plan:

  1. Secure an outstanding moderator. Instead of recruiting panelists first, start with a savvy moderator — someone who’s a great facilitator, will own the experience, and is unafraid to reel in panelists who hijack the conversation.
  • Recruit panelists who are credible, yet hold opposing viewpoints. When everybody agrees on nearly everything, audience attention wanders. Introduce a few hot topics with thoughtful debate, and your attendees will take notice and remember more of what transpired. Don’t over-stack your panel. More than three panelists and people will have a tough time following the discussion.
  • Coach panelists, draft best practices, and make sure everyone is on board. If you can get panelists to participate in several conference calls in advance, that’s ideal. If schedules collide, have one-on-one prep calls. Each panelist should invest four to eight hours in preparing talking points and supporting stories or analogies. Once you’re all on site, gather the group for a pregame huddle.
  • Bring the audience into the discussion. All too often, we ask attendees to save their questions for the end. Better to spark audience participation right from the start. Conduct relevant polls throughout the session, and for those heated debates, break away at a critical point and toss out a discussion question to your audience. The more you dial up audience participation, the better the learning.An outstanding panel discussion will leave your audience wanting more. As you wrap up the session, call out a time and place where everyone can meet to continue the conversation.

Staging Considerations

For stage sets, some go the traditional route with panels while others get more creative. Determining your best stage set will depend largely on the tone of the discussion. If it’s loaded with point-counterpoint debate, you might opt for a pitch-black stage (think TV talk-show host Charlie Rose’s stage) with a spotlight on a roundtable. Casual furnishing can also work well, but if panelists get too comfy on the couch, energy levels can drop. Head-tables and lecterns serve as a barrier to the audience: Ditch them. As for PowerPoint, use it sparingly, if at all. A vivid slide to support a talking point is best.

More Resources

Read Jeremiah Owyang’s blog post on “How to Successfully Moderate a Conference Panel, A Comprehensive Guide” at

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.