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Panel Discussions

A photograph shows the hands from five individuals that are sitting in a row at a table. The five individuals are wearing black suit jackets over white or blue dress shirts. There are mugs and water glasses in random positions along the table. In front of each pair of hands are papers and microphones. The two individuals whose hands are shown in the foreground are holding pens. The second individual appears to be reading from a paper packet.
Panel discussions at conferences are a useful way to trigger an exchange of viewpoints among experts, either with prepared statements or in response to questions from the audience. Because they involve on-the-spot interaction, they are more difficult to prepare for than presentations. Because they may involve divergence of viewpoints and possibly competition for speaking time, they are also more difficult to manage than the normal questions at the end of a presentation. For the same reasons, they are more challenging to moderate than a regular conference session.

Panels are teams. Whether or not panelists agree on all issues, they can and should work together to create an interesting discussion for the audience. If you are a panelist, play the part — prepare well and participate well. If you are the moderator, direct your team well, from the beginning of the session to the end.

Preparing for the panel

Panels can take many forms. When invited to be on a panel, ask about the format. What exactly will the discussion be about? Are you supposed to deliver a prepared statement to open the discussion, or are you only supposed to answer questions? Will someone introduce you, or are you supposed to introduce yourself? Who will be asking the questions: the audience, the moderator, or the other panel participants? Are some of the questions known in advance? Will the moderator designate who on the panel should answer a given question, or can any panel member offer a response? Most importantly, who are the other panelists? The answers to these questions will help you prepare appropriately.

As for a presentation, when preparing for a panel discussion, you can imagine the questions you will likely receive and be ready to answer them. Unlike for a presentation, however, you will be next to other people who may answer the same questions in different ways. Gathering your thoughts on the topic is, therefore, not enough: You should also research the other panelists' positions if you want to be ready for discussion.

Even if you cannot prepare an answer for every possible question, you can anticipate categories of questions and prepare, for each category, a few messages you would like to get across. As you select these messages, think of how you can convince your audience of them, such as by using evidence or examples. Because panel discussions are more like conversations, they lend themselves well to a slightly less formal tone than presentations. In particular, they are a good place for supporting messages with short but relevant stories (successes, failures, lessons learned, and so on).

Finally, even if you anticipate divergences of viewpoint, remember that a panel discussion is not a contest: You should work constructively with the other panelists to deliver an interesting experience to the audience. Try to meet the other panelists ahead of time so you can learn who is who, have a feel for who each panelist is, and build rapport. Even a brief chat just before the session will reduce your stage fright and help ensure a smoother discussion.

Participating in the discussion

During the discussion itself, follow the moderator's instructions. As a rule, speak only when invited to, but feel free to give signals to the moderator when you would like to contribute to the discussion. When you are speaking, keep it short: A panel discussion is about exchanges, not monologues. Make explicit links to what other panelists have said whenever you add to or disagree with their contributions. When you are not speaking, listen attentively to what others are saying: Make written or mental notes. As much as possible, be a member of the team: Strive to advance the discussion, not your own interests. If the moderator allows, feel free to hand over to another panelist at the end of a contribution, such as by saying "This is our usual approach at our institution, but I would be interested to hear about Dr. Brook's experience with this issue."

Panel discussions are not exams. If you do not know the answer to a question, dare to say so; do not ramble on or attempt to answer another question instead. Similarly, if you believe someone else on the panel is more qualified than you are to answer a particular question, say so, although prudently (for example, "I have never looked at this phenomenon myself, but perhaps Dr. Yu has?").

As with all oral communication, work on eye contact. When speaking (and only when speaking), look at the audience — though perhaps briefly at other panelists when referring to what they said or when handing over to them. When not speaking, look at whoever is speaking. In this way, if attendees look at you, they will follow your gaze to whatever panelist is speaking, and that person will then benefit from their eye contact.

Moderating the discussion

Moderating a panel discussion is much harder than being a panelist or even chairing a regular conference session. In addition to all the tasks involved in being a chairperson, such as introducing the session and the speakers (see Chairing Sessions), you also must launch, moderate, and summarize the discussion.

To launch the discussion, ask the panelists simple questions — perhaps questions you told them in advance you were going to ask. Limit the number of prepared questions, however: These usually trigger unconnected rehearsed answers from the panelists, not a true discussion. If the idea is to take questions from the attendees, encourage them to start asking early: The longer you alone ask questions, the harder it is for the attendees to gather the courage to ask some.

Once the discussion process is underway, facilitate it and encourage interaction. Designate who will answer a particular question ("Jianyun, would you like to answer this one?"). Encourage other panelists to comment on the first person's response ("Thanks, Jianyun. Sergey, do you share Jianyun's opinion?" or "Sergey, would you like to add anything to Jianyun's comment?"). As a rule, though, do not let panelists interrupt one another: Allow one panelist to finish his or her contribution before you designate or allow another panelist to react. Rephrase answers, especially diffuse ones ("So, if I understand correctly, you are saying that . . . "). Use these types of rephrased answers to launch follow-up questions ("In that case, then, wouldn't you agree that . . . ?"). If attendees are keen to ask many questions, guide them to keep the discussion focused ("Before we move to another aspect, any more questions related to . . . ?"); prevent them from interrupting panelists with follow-up questions, too. Feel free to take notes during the discussion. As always, manage the time ("Ahmed, do you have a two-minute answer to this one?").

At the end of the session, and perhaps at various points throughout it, summarize. Provide the audience with an integrated view of what has been said — one they can more easily remember than the detailed discussion. Point out the convergences and divergences of viewpoints while remaining neutral yourself. If possible, offer an overall conclusion from the discussion. If time allows, check your summary with the panelists ("Frauke, did I correctly render your viewpoint here?") and/or allow them a final statement ("Any last words, anyone? Pedro, what about you?").

As when chairing a session, insist on meeting panelists ahead of time to make sure everyone is clear on the process and to make final arrangements. Normally, you or another organizer will have sent the panelists guidelines well in advance, specifying what they must prepare (biographical information, answers to announced questions, etc.) and what the rules are (Can they use slides? If so, how many?, etc.). Still, go over the process again immediately before the session to avoid surprises. Make sure all panel members know who the other members are, who sits where, who speaks first, and so on. Test the equipment, especially the microphones — all of them.


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