How to put together and moderate a killer panel

Based on the feedback I received on the fabulous panel I moderated at Netroots Nation 2010 (“So You Wanna Change the World: How to Rock on Social Networks“), I decided to share my process for putting together a panel that will knock participants’ socks off. I’ve been the victim of too many snoozy, self-aggrandizing panels to let that happen on anything I put together, and I’d love to see no one ever have that kind of conference experience ever again.


Choosing a topic and title

What is absolutely critical from your area expertise that this audience needs to understand? Don’t just think that because you’re an expert in bilateral African swallow evolution that everyone at your conference should know about every nook and cranny. Ask yourself some questions: what are new, key findings that they might not know about? How can a piece of your expertise help the larger conference community grow? Remember that you’re not blessing the audience with your infinite cosmic power; you are providing a service that you want them to benefit from.

Next: choose a title that’s going to rope them in. Don’t be obvious, in most cases– again, think about your audience and what they’ve come to the conference to learn. One of the most frustrating things I see on the political conference circuit are poorly titled token panels like, “Why We Need Women to Win Elections.” First of all, boooooring. Second of all, the people who actually need to hear that message aren’t going to go to a panel called that.

I used the following example from my past as an RA on campus recently. I was responsible for the sexual assault awareness programming for my quad, and I knew that I wouldn’t get students to attend something called “Sexual Assault Awareness Night.” Instead, I stole the idea from a training I’d attended, where we took the name of a popular game show at the time (who remembers “Singled Out“?) and made all of the questions and answers about sexual assault awareness. Yes, it’s tricking people. But sometimes people need to be tricked into getting educated.

Copybloggers’ headline writing series also applies to panel naming in many respects, if you need extra help.

Choosing panelists

This can be challenging for most of us. We’re pulled in several directions: we want to get famous people onto our panel so that people will come; we want to promote our friends and their work; we want to have people that have interesting ideas. (I was lucky for my Netroots panel, since my panelists fit many of these bills, haha.)

Before you get to the famous and the friends, though, I want you to think about some other questions. First, who’s not just writing smart things about your topic, but who can actually explain them in an engaging way to an audience? Honestly, many writers and academics make terrible presenters. The panelists don’t have to be the most fun or funniest, but they should do more than drone on as they read a prepared statement.

Next, who do you know that has something challenging to say on your topic? You don’t just want panelists who will congratulate each other; you’ll want them to interact and play off each other. That doesn’t mean they have to be douchey or mean, just willing to be a little different if it’s called for.

On the topic of famous people: yes, having one on your panel is extremely helpful for getting people to choose it from all the other panels that are available in that time slot. It’s true. So, if you choose a famous person, maybe consider choosing someone else who’s not so famous, but meets other, stronger criteria above, so they get some elevation out of the process.

Last, but probably most important: Choose people from different genders, races and backgrounds. I’m not saying this to be nice, or even as an ethical argument. People from different backgrounds make for a more interesting panel. It’s like DNA– see this post I wrote about it, which also plays a major role in my book.

Preparing for the panel

Depending on how in-depth your panel is, anywhere from a few weeks to a week before the panel, email your panelists and lay out what you need from them. Come up with 3-4 questions for them to choose from as a guide for what you want the panel to focus on. Make it clear that you want the audience to take away clear, concrete ideas and action items–this is not just story time.

Give them a time limit that they are supposed to work within (generally 7-10minutes is about right for the average panel), and warn them that you will cut them off if they go over.

Tell them that if they are presenting case studies as an illustrative example of how things work or should work, the case studies must be replicable. Too often (especially on panels about social media and blogging), a case that is unbelievably outstanding is presented, and key points about what really made the success–such as participant’s relationships with key influencers–are left out. This is so damaging to the wider community: When people think that all they have to do, for example, is come up with a nice charity idea and ask their friends to help, they become disappointed and turned off of social media when it doesn’t work.

I also advise against using any PowerPoint presentations, unless you have strong images or graphics. (I myself go for the TED-style of PowerPoint, with just large images and one or two words on each slide.) It’s too tempting for a presenter to just read what’s on screen and not engage with the audience at all.

If there are heavy-duty materials that need to be shared, determine ahead of time a place online where you can share each panelist’s materials: a blog, a wiki, SlideShare, etc.

On the day of the panel

Ask your panelists to meet a half-hour before the panel starts and discuss quickly what each person is going to talk about. Confirm that there are no egregious overlaps in topic. Determine the order that each panelist will present in.

Make sure all your AV is working, and if there are going to be lots of social media users in your audience, choose a hashtag for your panel. (Try just adding a single word to the conference’s main hashtag– for example, we used #nn10rock.)

Get a 2-sentence bio from each of your panelists. Their full bios are either in the conference program or on the conference website, so don’t worry about using the whole thing.

During the panel

Give an overview of the panel topic: Set the stage for your panelists based on what you know they’re going to present, and ask your audience a few questions about the topic that they can answer with a show of hands. Introduce your panelists with the short bios you gathered.

Let your panelists present, but keep to your promise to cut them off when their time is up. Take notes for questions while they’re speaking.

Start the Q&A period of the panel by asking a few pointed questions based on the notes you took. Ask them to explain one interesting detail further.

When it’s time to open the questions up to the audience, warn them of one very big important point: You will not tolerate anyone who gives an entire history of the project their working on, and then asks a random question at the end. We know you’re just there to self-promote, and we’re interested in having a conversation. Using up a lot of time to ask a question does the whole community a disservice. Instead, say your name, that you’re working on [name of project], and you want to know x. Anything more than that will find you cut off.

I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the only way to get through a lot of questions, and to have a productive Q&A session at most conferences.

Following up

At the end of the panel, remind people where they can find the materials online, and then actually gather and post those materials within 24 hours, if possible. Share the materials with wider audiences on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Invite comment and critique, and improve your panel stylings based on that feedback.

5 Responses to “How to put together and moderate a killer panel”

  1. Baratunde says:

    excellent! it worked

  2. Authorine says:

    Deanna this is excellent stuff and useful to panel prep in a wide range of areas (I’m thinking of the numerous Writers Festivals in Australia). Thanks! I’ve just forwarded to our friend Virginia who’s chairing 5 panels at the upcoming Byron Bay Writers Festival (inc one with me). But, typo: I think that in para 3 of During the Panel, you mean ‘pointed’ rather than ‘poignant’. Yeah?

  3. Karl says:

    Really fantastic stuff and I hope the NN staff takes this into consideration for guiding the selection process and working with the accepted panels. I will be putting this to good use next year.

    Also, sorry to have missed your panel, was it one of the ones that was taped?

  4. Hey Deanna,

    I thought you’d want to see our ‘other side of the table’ post on 12 ways to beat panelist paralysis: http://www.cloudspark.com/2010/07/26/12-ways-to-beat-panelist-paralysis/

    Thanks for the great tips on moderating!

    @cloudspark

  5. Diane Bisgeier says:

    phew – post-facto, I think we did a lot of this – but not all. It’s super helpful to have this so well articulated and documented. GOOD stuff!

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