The panel debates you organise as part of your event’s programme need to be given the same consideration and care in their planning as other key sessions. Unfortunately, however, many events don’t give their panels the attention needed to make them a ‘must attend’ session for their attendees. It can be hard work pulling a panel together so it’s a shame to waste all that time and not make the most of the opportunity you have in your hands.
Here are seven key steps in helping you plan the panel debates your attendees want:
1. Choose Your Chair with Care
In this article, we are referring to panel debates as opposed to panel discussions. A debate is more dynamic than a discussion. Many event attendees spend time going to panels because they want to hear differing views. Very few attendees like listening to ‘talking shops’. Hence the differentiation between the two and the focus on debates. With this in mind, let’s look at a few of the qualities and skills you should be considering when deciding on who you will use to ‘chair’ your panel debate.
The chair needs gravitas and should not be in awe of any of the speakers who will be on your panel. Some chairs can become star struck and then their ability to ask challenging questions and govern proceedings appropriately can be lost.
They must be willing to ask searching questions to engage your audience. Vanilla questions will just not cut it and people will switch off. In addition, the chair should refrain from asking the same question to each panellist. Many chairs fall into this habit and risk boring attendees. It is especially bad when the speakers all agree (sometimes there is no other option) with each other. If they do agree with each other, the chair should encourage the speaker to add to what has been said already. To avoid the issue of question repetition, a chair could ask a speaker a question and then when the speaker has responded, ask the audience if they agreed or disagreed. Then the chair could ask a different speaker a question that comes from some of the audience responses. A good chair should always have a number of prepared questions that can be used according to how the debate unfolds.
A chair needs to be able to think on their feet, have the ability to move the debate along at a pace that works for the audience and they must be able to encourage questions from the floor and make sure they are answered.
Finally, the chair needs to be in control. Speakers need to be kept to time and no individual speaker should dominate. On most panels there will be speakers with strong views. The chair has to be as strong if the delegates are to enjoy an engaging debate.
2. Choose Your Panellists with Care Too!
Some event planners choose speakers due to the big-name organisations that they represent. It’s a natural thing to do. You want to maximise the number of attendees that will come to your panel debate. However, if you have an audience of small company owners, for example, then big brands may have different issues to deal with, which means that your audience will not get as much from the session as they hoped. Think carefully about the outcome you want from the panel debate and then go and look for your speakers.
Ensure that the speakers have good experience to bring, make sure they too (as with the chair) can think in the moment and can be respectful of time. It’s important to apply the same criteria in selecting speakers for your panel debates as you do for your keynote speaker(s). And it’s best not to pop people on panels just to make up numbers. Each speaker has a specific role to play in your debate. If there isn’t a purpose for them and they cannot add to the debate, then it’s best not to include them.
3. Make Sure You Brief Everyone
Everyone needs to be briefed. The chair needs a briefing, the speakers too and so do the audience. What do you want from each of them to make it a fully immersive panel debate? Be sure that you can explain to your chair and speakers who will be in your audience. What burning issues do the attendees have or are likely to have?
Your chair needs to know about the panel members. Provide enough information as you can and ensure that the chair understands how much or how little controversy you want.
Your speakers need to understand that the debate is for the benefit of the audience. It’s not for speakers to stoke their egos. They need to know if you want them to make a short presentation and answer questions or just answer questions. Ensure that your speakers are willing and able (some companies prohibit speaking on certain issues) to answer challenging questions. They should also express a clear view and not sit on the fence.
Your audience should also be briefed. Do you want questions from them as you go along or just at the end? Or maybe even after a specific discussion? Decide and plan accordingly.
Every panel debate can be made according to what will work best for you. You don’t have to follow what everyone else does. If you want a stand out debate then make specific briefings part of your priority list of items to do.
4. Engage Your Audience (including remote delegates)
Most attendees at panel debates will expect that there will be some time allocated for questions from the audience. But what happens at a lot of events is that the chair ends up using the majority of the time with the speakers and then has little remaining for audience. Rushed questions at the end of a session leave delegates feeling unloved and short-changed.
If you really want to engage your audience, you have to turn the time issue on its head. You could make almost all of the debate made up of questions coming thick and fast from the audience. It works and it works well. You can use your registration system or app to ask delegates for their questions in advance of the session. This not only helps in driving engagement in the run-up to your event, it is also a great way in creating more personalised experiences around your content and sessions.
If you have remote delegates (those not able to physically be present at the event venue), make sure you have made the arrangements to include them too. Ask them to send questions via social media or messaging channels like your event app or Whatsapp. Ensure their voices can be heard. If you are using an online host, then make sure they are actively encouraging participation of remote delegates. Remember, there is no reason these delegates should not be actively involved in your debate.
5. Use the Microphones!
It may be surprising to hear, but microphones and how to use them seems to be a problem for numerous speakers and audience members. They are important even if the debate is not being recorded or web-streamed. And this is because you can’t possibly have an engaging debate if people cannot hear clearly what is being said.
At some events (it happens), if a delegate doesn’t use a microphone and the chair doesn’t repeat the question, then no one else can follow what has happened (speakers included). So, always ensure you have enough microphones for your chair and panel members. Skimping on mic costs isn’t going to help your session.
If the panel are passing a hand-held mic between them, how effective will that be? This depends to a degree on the size of your panel. But, passing a mic between members does affect the rhythm of the debate. It could easily become a session that limps along stuttering slowly. How engaging would that be for your attendees?
Whatever microphone you end up using, make sure you encourage people to use it correctly. Some people get way too close to it. Other simply hold it tentatively and rather timidly whisper into it.
Scott Ashton of leading production company, Quintessential Promotions, recommends the following microphone distances as a rule of thumb: For a lapel mic you should be 4-6 inches away, for a hand-held mic then just an inch away and for a lectern mic 3-4 inches away. Of course, the audio technician will help adjust the sound as much as possible, but there is only so much that can be done if people are not getting to grips with the microphone.
Test the sound and lighting. Just as you would for any other event.
6. Think About the Furniture
Over recent years there has been a trend to have panels sitting on cosy sofa-like chairs. Sometimes the chairs are too comfortable and you can see the energy and vibrancy leaving the speakers as they fall into their seats. The question is whether this style of seating helps produce a productive debate. If the speakers are too relaxed, will they be giving everything they have to the debate at hand?
Just as important, if you are using cosy chairs, can the speakers be seen properly? At many exhibitions, it is often hard to see panel members. What about using high riser chairs or stools? Have a look at the different options. Follow the trend if you must but if you want your panel to stand out, then ask yourself what can you do to make sure everyone can see, hear and engage with your delegates properly?
7. Evaluate Your Panel
Are you evaluating your panel sessions at the end? If not, why not? If you evaluate speakers, you can follow the same criteria for evaluating your panel debates. You could evaluate the panel, speaker by speaker. Or you could carry out an overall evaluation of the panel session as a whole. Make sure you don’t forget to evaluate the chair too.
Whatever way you choose to measure the success of your panel debates, what you need to establish is whether your delegates learned something new and whether it inspired them to take action of some description. Speakers and chairs will generally welcome feedback. After all most will want to learn how they can improve their delivery. In the same way, if you take the findings and analyse the insights from your sessions, then you can plug in improvements for your next debate. There is always something to learn.
Good luck with your next panel debate!
The Eventsforce programme management tool can help you automate the entire process of creating, publishing and managing personalised sessions and agendas around your events. For more information, click here or call us for a chat on +44 (0) 207 785 6997.