11 Tips For Making Sure Your Conference Panel Doesn’t Suck

And, you know, that the audience actually learns something new


Conference panels usually suck.

So much so that we eliminated them from our social media conference, Social Fresh.

Plenty of other top tier conferences have a ‘no panels’ policy as well. And they achieve great quality sessions through that focus.

But what if you wanted to curate the ultimate panel. A panel that is the same quality as say a TED talk.

It’s not as easy as just putting a group of topic experts at a flimsy card table and giving them microphones. It takes planning. It takes work. And it takes a moderator that can think on their feet. Panels are, after all, the improv of conference content.

Oh yeah, and you have to channel all those egos into something more positive and constructive. Easier said than done.

I asked a bunch of panel moderator pros for their advice on the topic—How they would make sure a conference panel doesn’t suck.

Their tips are below.

(DO/DON’T Format stolen from Faris Yakob)

1. DO Get The Best Moderator You Can Find

I can’t emphasize this simple but under-emphasized point enough. Your moderator is your maestro. He or she can pull the best from even the most mediocre panelists. They should know the topic, know the audience, know the panelists very well.

“The key to everything is a good moderator. Ideally the moderator is more known to the audience than the guests and can ask questions that illicit thoughtful response.” — Michael Stelzner

2. DON’T Avoid Heated Debates

“Find out beforehand what questions your participants will disagree on. Make sure those are your starting points for the discussion so as to get the fireworks going early” — Marcus Sheridan

“Invite panelists to disagree and debate points of contention early and often.” — Tom Martin

“Never be afraid to stir the pot. Debates can be the best way to draw out the real value.” — David Spinks

3. DO Ask Challenging Questions

“Surprise them with something with something contentious that you haven’t prepared them for.” — Faris Yakob

“I ask each of them to give me 2 questions they would want to hear the other panelists answer.” — Tim McDonald

4. DON’T Have A Moderator That Just Wants To Look Smart

“I never prepare questions designed to make me look smart. I prepare the questions I suspect the audience wants to hear answered. They’ll thank you for it, and (as a side benefit) you’ll look smart anyway.” — Tom Webster

5. DO Tailor Questions For Each Panelist

“Prepare tailored questions for each panelist to let them shine.” — Mike Langford

“Don’t just ask them all the same question in sequence, it gets boring.” — Faris Yakob

“Give panelists permission to not all answer every question. Focus them on their strong points. Focus them where you know their answers will be the most interesting.” — Tom Martin

6. DON’T Depend On Audience Questions

The moderator should prepare a long list of questions and review them heavily before the panel. They should ask the panelists for questions as well. Questions the panelists want to answer, as well as questions they might need to avoid.

“To be honest, a lot of the questions you get from the audience are likely to be either self-serving, or at best a little too highly calibrated to the individual situation of the questioner. I try to anticipate as many of these “use cases” for likely audience members as I can by imagining the types of people (even specific individuals as models) who are likely to attend.” — Tom Webster

7. DO Get The Audience Involved Early

Opening the floor to questions is a risk, but there is a lot of pressure to get take audience questions. As well as a lot of opportunity to use the crowd’s knowledge for better content.

One super valuable workaround is to let the audience ask their questions before the panel using a crowdsourcing service like Google Moderator. Attendees can propose and vote up questions they like, while the moderator and panelists can learn more about the challenges and interests of their audience.

“Crowd source questions topics/questions on Twitter.” — Josh Murdock

8. DON’T Be Afraid To Cut Off or Press Panelists

“A good moderator not only knows how to cut off a blabbering mouth, but also knows each persons strengths and can direct questions and rebuttals to the appropriate person.” — Scott Straten

“Actively listen and interrupt panelists often to ask for clarifications on points.” — Bob Knorpp

The moderator needs to “keep control and have some bridging phrases/cutoff phrases ready to redirect a panelist or a questioner who goes off topic or tries to turn it into a two person conversation.” — Jenn Fowler

“If they try to breeze by an answer, dig deeper. Force them to get to the real answer.” — David Spinks

9. DO Over Prepare

“I come up with dozens of questions for the panel ahead of time… I literally write 30-50 questions down in advance, knowing that I may only get to 5 of them, but when I do they will be phrased exactly how I want them, and the panel will be kept on track.” — Tom Webster

“Research. Read the blogs and other platforms that the panelists write on in order to get an idea of where they stand on relevant topics.” — Kristy Bolsinger

“Research your panelists, watching recordings is the best way to see how they react to awkward questions and if they are prone to awkward silences!” — Ty Francis

“I do two prep calls (sometimes the second is a meetup before the panel). In the first one I get people to introduce themselves and talk about what they want to cover. The second is a dress rehearsal.” — Ted Shelton

10. DO Introduce The Panelists Before The Day Of

“Prep call in advance. Moderator creates questions, and on the call adds different questions. Ensure as moderator to take notes on the call to use them to prompt questions and discussion during panel.” — Howard Greenstein

“Get all the panelist and moderator together in advance for drinks, lunch, or coffee to chat about hot topics to cover.” — Josh Murdock

11. DON’T Be Afraid To Joke

“Try to get a running joke going.” — Faris Yakob

“Always play the secret word game with a proper wager involved. Decide on a secret word that each panelist will try to work into the panel organically as often as possible. You can also get the audience involved and let them guess the word after.” — Tom Martin


2 helpful articles that contributed to the content in this post:

  1. 5 Tips For Moderating A Panel
  2. 7 Tips For How To Make Your Conference Panel Rock
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