How to organize a panel

Seven tips for panel organizers

#1 Know the ways it can go wrong

If you haven’t read “Top 10 panel disasters and how to avoid them take a look now — I’ll still be here when you get back.

#2 You only have one job!

Actually you have four jobs that are panel-specific. (You have many more with respect to the entire event, you hero you.)

By far the most important job is picking a skilled moderator, so my guide for moderators might be useful for you as well. Almost all the disasters on the list evaporate in the hands of a good moderator.

Your second job is taking care of, well, organizing. The scope (usually) includes lending the moderator a hand with things like coordination of meetings, making sure the stage environment is comfortable, herding panelists, etc.

Your third job is selecting the panelists and there are two important principles to remember:

  1. There’s a right number of panelists. It varies.
  2. Mutual comfort zones dictate the topic.

Your final job will be making a good info slide to use as a visual aid during the panel.

#3 Non-experts make great moderators

Be sure you understand what a moderator does and pick someone will the skills to do the job. (See moderator’s guide.) Domain expertise is not enough, and sometimes even works against you.

Counterintuitively, the safest choice for moderator is a non-expert in the topic.

Not only are non-experts more likely to empathize with the audience and call for explanation of niche jargon, but they’re also less likely to be visibly frustrated by diverse opinions on the panel. Experts with strong views might spoil the panel by dominating the conversation instead of facilitating it. They might also worry about losing face by prompting clarifications.

Everything about the organization and moderation of this AI leadership panel was exemplary. The moderator choice was perfect — pay attention to how skillfully Liv Boeree phrases questions to engage nonexpert audience members.

Non-experts also expose themselves to fewer professional risks — if I moderate a panel on, say, virtual reality (not my area), I don’t have to worry very much about being judged harshly for letting two panelists espouse different views. If the topic is AI (my area), one of those panelists may have views that loudly contradict mine. If I reprimand them or give them no room to speak, I’m being a jerk moderator. If I don’t, I’ll feel like I’m taking a professional risk by tacitly endorsing their views.

That said, the moderator should never have less expertise than the typical audience member.

#4 There’s a right number of panelists: It varies.

Too many panelists make it hard to put on a good show while too few might not have the combined star power to attract the audience in the first place. Both are bad for your event.

It’s about combined star power versus discussion quality.

Moderators tend to favor the two-panelist for quality of content. The main reason this format isn’t the dominant one is attendance. The audience demands a buffet of “interesting” personages and they’re more likely to skip out if they see only two names, but each additional person means it’s harder to have a real discussion and share the limelight fairly. Four panelists is the safety limit for a good show — don’t attempt it without a good moderator.

Don’t forget that the audience will contemplate your blend of panelists, so any choice you make is likely to be interpreted as a statement… especially if all the panelists are identical to one another in some way.

Many moderators favor the two-panelist format for quality of content. People pictured: Ritch Houdeck, SVP of Technology at Kohl’s, me, and Chris Wright, CTO at Red Hat. Location: San Francisco.

#5 Mutual comfort zones dictate the topic

By selecting the identities of the panelists, you’re effectively setting boundaries on the panel’s scope. Bored panelists are bad for everyone, so a good moderator is trained to nudge them to talk about whatever they would be mutually interested in. If you want to run a technical astrophysics panel, don’t invite someone who has never taken physics.

#6 Background signal in the noise

Remember those lengthy self-intros that eat the entire session’s allotted time and disrupt your conference’s schedule by causing the panel to run late? The best way to avoid them is to make sure that all of that information is available to the audience. Your secret weapon is the background slide (or background poster for tiny panels in rooms without projectors). If in doubt, copy the one below. Don’t forget to ensure that speakers know which seat to take — if it doesn’t match the name order in the slide, the audience will experience unnecessary dissonance.

This is almost the gold standard on how to make a background slide. Items passing my harshest checklist: photos of the speakers are present, we know who the moderator is (the orange tag on Liv’s photo), the panel title is present, and names are accompanied by key details. What’s missing? Social media information for the panelists. There were a lot of tweets with great comments from the audience (we panelists do use them as feedback) but they were hard to find because they weren’t tagged.

#7 Trust your moderator

The moderator you picked has a difficult job, so they’re counting on your support. Help them out where they need it, but don’t hover nervously. After you’ve signed them on, it’s time to hand over the steering wheel. Don’t insist on helping them organize things they’ve told you they don’t want or need.

In the style of Pascal’s wager, you may as well have faith in them. If they’re unskilled, there’s very little you can do to save the panel anyway. If they’re skilled, your trust will go a long way to making experience more positive for everyone.

Best of luck!

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