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Make Panels Amazing

Panel discussions are pervasive, yet almost universally unpopular in the conference world, according to Kristin Arnold, a professional moderator and speaker who conducted a survey about panel discussions early this year (

Arnold’s survey found that panel discussions almost always disappoint — the topic is a snooze, the moderator mumbles, the panelists are unprepared or have their own agenda.

The survey’s results inspired Arnold, president of QPC Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, to make panels better. “I’m on a mission to make all panels amazing,” she said. I talked to her recently to glean ideas for making panels more powerful.


Timely Topics

Arnold warns not to assume that you, the planner, know what the crowd wants to hear. “Make sure the topic is something that the audience is interested in,” she said. Poll potential attendees. “I would use crowd sourcing or a survey,” Arnold said. And make sure that the topic will be relevant six months from now.

After the topic is chosen, market it in many ways to ensure a good turnout. “You don’t want to have a panel that is bigger than your audience,” said Arnold.


Moderator Can Make — or Break

“The moderator can make or break the panel,” said Arnold. “A good moderator can make a marginal panel look brilliant, but a panel can’t make a moderator look good.” Although superb speaking skills are essential, the moderator must have other strengths. “They need to be a good listener,” she said. “They also have to be a good facilitator to get the panelists talking and be able to summarize at the end. You don’t need a moderator who is all about themselves.”

Planners can gauge a moderator’s skills by seeing them in action, live or on video; by talking to planners who have hired them; and by asking moderators about their training and background.


Panelists Have Pull

Consider that in some cases, attendees come to a panel specifically to hear a panelist. “Are you picking panelists who the audience will want to hear from, who have depth in the topic?” Arnold said.

She seeks panelists who are DEEP — diverse, experienced, eloquent and prepared. Diversity is often a quality missing among panelists. “We need some diversity on the main stage,” she said. “Sometimes you have to dig and expand beyond your circle.”

Politics can influence panel selection. For example, many organizations place a sponsor on a panel. It can be a good or bad move, Arnold says, depending on the sponsor’s motives.

“If they are going to pitch to the audience, and that is primary reason they want to be on the panel, no,” she said. “But if there is a sponsor that is coming from an authentic, sincere place where they could help the audience — those who give naturally and without pitching — then yes. It is all about the audience. You want to make sure they [panelists and moderator] are going to serve the best interests of the audience.”