*sigh* Panel

Sometimes a panel is unavoidable, or even might be the right choice. Maybe you’ve been told to run one. Maybe you’ve got an auditorium that seats 400 and 3 all-star contributors. Maybe you know how to run panels really well, and want to start tweaking them without risking a whole new format. Or maybe you’re a contributor and really want the panel you’re on to shine, not stumble. Here’s how.


  • The format is clear and familiar
  • It suits many lecture-style venues
  • Attendee numbers are not a constraint


There are more than I care to discuss here.

 Best for:

Auditoriums, star speakers who you know will nail a discussion, technical or new subjects a that your attendees will know little about

 You will need:

  • Excellent panellists with diverse views, mic’d up well
  • A venue with good acoustics and comfortable seats
  • An excellent facilitator briefed well on the agenda

How it works:

I won’t give a blow by blow of how to run a panel. Instead, here are tips that can make or break the event.

Set a clear agenda or framing question. Don’t just give a vague topic and hope for the best.

MAYBE: “Smart Cities: tools for urban utopia or tech company money-spinner?”

NO NO NO: “An evening discussion of Smart Cities across the world.”

Brief your panel well. Let each speak briefly to the agenda at the start – don’t read lengthy blurbs off a bit of paper and expect audience adulation. Brief each panellist to come armed with a short, open question for the rest of the panel, or audience.

Ask bold, open questions of the panel, not leading ones.

YES: “What worries you about [the topic at hand?]”

YES: “What are the biggest opportunities in [the topic at hand?]”

NO NO NO: “Next we turn to Panellist Author, I read in your brand new book that no-one’s read yet something that implied you took a counterintuitive view on operationalising and activating intergenerational leverage. Can you speak to that?”

Break the panel out into the audience. I saw Simon Torok use this method at ASC2018. After a short, conventional intro to the topic from the panel, two panellists took handheld mics out and set up shop in the ‘audience’. Then, all questions were open to anyone to respond – this acknowledged the depth and breadth of expertise in the room. The ‘panellists’ still effectively had first right to comment – they often did so while ‘roving’ the mic around the theatre – but the entire discussion opened up beautifully.

Ask the attendees questions. This is a great tactic if you know that your invited experts represent only some, but not all, perspectives on the topic at hand. For example, you might have a great international expert on a certain healthcare challenge, and an attendee group featuring local practitioners. Prep your international expert to ask the locals a question or three – it instantly ‘flips’ the format and makes it much more engaging.

Want to really spice things up? Sequentially substitute out panel members for audience members, and even a facilitator. You are guaranteed to get different perspectives, empower the attendees and potentially tap completely unexpected expertise. Matt Finch has a write-up of such an experiment here.

Want to go ghost-pepper spicy? Don’t even invite a panel. Get your audience to decide on the 3 or 4 key themes they want represented by those ‘on stage’, and ask them to self-organise to identify who has strong knowledge or expertise in those topics. Invite those ‘instant panellists’ onto the stage for a conversation; change it up halfway through the event.

 A note on sourcing good audience questions:

Many people struggle to frame questions on the fly. You can help them, and the event, by getting them to vet each other’s questions before they ask them. Rather than letting their question rattle around in the corridors of their brain, give them a chunk of time to exchange ideas and questions with their neighbours.

Try this paragraph:

“You have the opportunity to set the agenda for the second half of tonight based on what you know, want to know, and what you’ve just heard. So stand up, let your blood move, and say hi to the people to your left and right. If there’s a gap, move to close it. Then take turns to tell those people a question you think other attendees would want to hear these guest’s thoughts on. We’ll give you 5 minutes to chat and come up with concise, challenging questions. Then we’ll take 5 of those and the guests will discuss them for the second half of the event.”

Take clusters of audience questions early and manage them proactively – do not have a queue or hands up for 20 minutes, it’s unfair and painful. Taking a cluster of questions (eg 3) mediates some of the worst elements of Q&A. Rambly not-questions can be full-stopped as statements, without feeling obligated to put one of the panel on the spot. Each question can be addressed by the most relevant panellist (if it’s specific) without the ‘need’ to involve all panellists. It’s more time-efficient, so more voices can enter the conversation.

Watch out for:

  • Rambling audience questions. The moderator must be in charge. The first hand up is a red flag. Warn the audience to be concise and enforce it.
  • Skimming. The moderator should push contributors if they are skirting important issues – the audience want to get more than a superficial insight. Don’t be scared of silence if it’s a genuine pause for thought. If you ask a killer question, don’t immediately rephrase it if an easy answer isn’t forthcoming. You owe it to the audience to reveal the complexity and nuance that comes when issues are dug into at a critical level.