Engagement + Marketing

Panel Discussions: Tell a Good Story

Many elements go into telling a good story: characters, plot, language, pacing. But a key element to any well-told tale is structure — a clear train of thought, a path down which to lead the audience.

Just as structure is important in telling a story, it’s important to panel discussions. If a panel discussion at an event is not structured correctly, it can lose its impact, or worse, its audience.

This past weekend, I attended the annual Brooklyn Book Festival at Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza. Arriving later in the afternoon on Sunday — after perusing rows and rows of tents containing books, authors, and journalists of all kinds — I attended two author panel discussions. The first, a look at how violence is portrayed in modern-day fiction, was a discussion with three prominent fiction authors — Amelia Gray (Threats), Dennis Lehane (Moonlight Mile) and Sapphire (The Kid) — moderated by Greg Cowles, editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Greg Cowles, editor of the New York Times Book Review, moderating discussion at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Cowles posed questions to the authors, allowing any of them to respond at first. If he had a particular author in mind for a question, he’d start with him or her. Then if someone didn’t have a say, he’d work down the row until everyone was able to answer. Out of this structure, organic conversations grew. It developed into a natural back-and-forth resulting in interesting tangents, heated debates, and humorous rants. The authors became relaxed and honest with the audience members, in turn giving them the most value from the conversation. Cowles’ structure was conducive to an impactful panel discussion, with each author and audience member playing an integral part.

The second panel discussion I attended, on modern day marriage and monogamy in media, included four authors and was moderated by writer Kate Bolick (upcoming Among the Suitors: Single Women I Have Loved). This panel was structured differently. Each author had ten minutes to read from what they’d already written about the topic before the event. Bolick started at one end of the table and went down the line until all four authors had their time to speak, after which she opened the floor to questions from the audience.

Kate Bolick, author, moderates discussion on monogamy and marriage at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

While all the authors’ messages were interesting, the discussion was not nearly as enthralling as the first panel’s. There was no back-and-forth. The authors barely interacted until after they’d all said their piece — a marked difference from the exchange of views and opinion-changing discussion from earlier in the day.

It was clear that too much structure actually killed the “discussion” aspect of the panel, which is one of the main reasons that attendees even go to events like the Brooklyn Book Festival: they’re live, face-to-face, and there’s no telling where the conversation will lead.

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.