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A better way to do panel-discussion presentations: Q&A, no talking heads

Author’s note: In the past few days I’ve said yes to invitations to be a panelist for three different Webinars in the next couple of months. For one of those Webinars, I just finished writing up some suggestions for the panel format, based on experience. I’m migrating the suggestions to this blog post so that I can reuse them in the future.

I’ve been speaking at conferences for more than 35 years. Too often, a so-called “panel discussion” is just a series of speeches by talking heads, often leading audience members to tune out or even walk out.

A better panel-discussion format is described below; it works well for both audiences and presenters. I’ve been using this format, typically as a panelist and often as panel chair too, for going on 25 years, for the American Bar Association’s Section of Intellectual Property Law; the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC); the Licensing Executives Society (LES) USA/Canada; the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management (IACCM); and the State Bars of Texas and California. (I’m pretty sure I’ve done such panels multiple times for each of these organizations.)

Here’s how it works:

  1. In advance, the panelists do a 45- to 60-minute conference call to figure out the following:
    • what “thumb-sucker” (open-ended) questions to pose during the presentation; and
    • for each question: which panelist will take the lead in answering the question, along with some notes about the likely answer as brainstormed by the panelists.
  2. After that advance prep call, a designated “scribe” panelist (usually me) compiles the agreed questions, the notes, and the lead-presenter designations, into an outline.
  3. The scribe-panelist circulates the outline to the other panelists.
  4. A few days before the presentation, the panelists do a 15- to 30-minute panelist conference call to review and fine-tune the outline.
  5. The scribe-panelist emails the final draft of the outline to the other panelists.
  6. At the presentation: For each of the agreed questions in the outline (as time permits): One of the panelists (let’s call her “Alice”) addresses the question to the panelist designated to take the lead in answering that question (let’s call him “Bob”).
  7. Bob answers the question — and then Alice and other panelists Carol, Dave, etc., can chime in with any other observations or insights that they want to add. Discussion among the panelists might well ensue.
  8. For some questions, the panel might also ask audience members, “Does anyone else have any experience along these lines?” That often provokes audience input.
  9. For some questions, before the lead panelist answers the question, she might tell the audience, “Please turn to your neighbor and discuss the question among yourselves.” (For Webinars, that can be done via breakout rooms.)

The above format is quite popular with audiences, presenters, and conference organizers:

  • Audiences like this format because they get to participate, and true panel discussions are more useful (and entertaining) than a series of talking heads.
  • Presenters like this format because it lets them draw on their existing expertise without requiring them to spend a lot of time preparing formal speeches.
  • Conference organizers like the fact that such a panel discussion can be ended on time, because the content is divided into “chunks” (the questions), and the panelists can simply stop when time is up.

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