How to plan a lively panel discussion

Panel discussions should be the highlights of your conference, but often they’re a snoozefest. Use these Qs to plan a panel that will leave your attendees wide awake.

Conference panels (aka symposia) can be REALLY boring. Ask anyone who’s attended their fair share of academic conferences and they’ll tell you about a time they struggled to stay awake while a presenter read directly from their paper or a moderator made a mess of managing the discussion

Panel discussions at a conference have the potential to be a highlight of the entire event. They bring together a group of diverse scholars and experts who share a common interest in the topic, providing a platform for intelligent discussion and debate. And with new virtual and hybrid formats emerging, panels have been given even more space to thrive (they’re one of the session formats that people seem to like best online).

Here’s the who, what, where, when, and why you should consider when planning a panel discussion that will engage your audience.


Why are you planning a panel discussion?

“Hold up,” you might be saying, “the whole introduction just explained why I should be planning one. Isn’t that enough?” Short answer: No.

The most important question and the first one to ask yourself is “Why?” Nothing should be done just because it’s expected. If you plan a panel with that attitude, the audience will only attend because they feel like they’re expected to. Get excited about the panel and you’ll have a much easier time drumming up attendees and buzz around it. 

Think about the objectives of your panel discussion. What can it contribute toward the overall goals of your conference, association, or field of research? What can prospective attendees and presenters expect to get out of their participation in it? Is a panel discussion the right format for achieving the outcomes everyone desires? If a pure Q&A session or a plain presentation would be better suited to those outcomes, you’d be wasting valuable time in the conference schedule by using an hour or more for a panel.

So before you dive into planning, understand why. Then use this “why” as a mantra to guide the rest of the logistical decisions you’ll need to make along the way. If you need some inspiration, check out how the Political Studies Association rewrote the rulebook on academic conference design by integrating engaging panels into their annual conference.


Who will be in the panel (and in the audience)?

A panel discussion is nothing without the people involved. And picking the right people can be a tricky task. Here are a few positions you’ll most likely need to fill…

The moderator (aka the chair or discussant or MC)

Picking a good moderator is the key ingredient to a successful panel discussion. The moderator will be responsible for time management and ensuring they don’t let your speakers ramble off on tangents or dominate the talk. So they’ll need to be skilled at politely interrupting speakers that have gone over their allocated time and redirecting the discussion to the previous point. 

But, one moderator does not fit all. Perhaps you need an authoritative figure to keep everyone in line or a journalistic figure to ask probing questions? Also, consider if the topic is a niche area requiring prior knowledge, or whether a moderator with a neutral perspective could be an advantage. Also consider the tech support, the panel guests and the audience


When should you include time for discussion and questions?

Best practice for panel length is around an hour, which is generally followed by a 20-30 minute question and answer session with the audience. However, the format and length of your panel can vary depending on your goals.


Where should everything (and everyone) be on the day?

Logistics, especially around your panel discussion stage setup, can seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But don’t leave them to the last minute. The flow of your panel can be affected by how your participants are seated, the resources available to them and the audience, and the overall vibe of the room. 

Finally, how can you take advantage of the space to achieve your other conference goals? The furniture and the backdrop of the stage are great places to show off your event branding. You can even use these spaces to promote your key sponsors. Pictures of the panel that are then shared online will include these details and carry them much further than the walls of the conference venue.

After the panel is over, regardless of your chosen format, you can encourage your delegates and panellists to continue the discussion online through your event app and social media channels.