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How to host a panel discussion

Panel hosts come in all guises. The eager volunteer, the CEO who loves the sound of their own voice at their own event and - if your event organiser hasn't arrived in the 21st century yet - the last minute female or minority expert. If you've been asked to moderate a panel, it's within your power to influence how an audience feels when they go home. Bored or intrigued? Indifferent or uplifted? Taking your role seriously will be the difference between a successful event and a disappointing one.


Panel discussions that leave no time for audience participation; that let one speaker dominate over the others, or that fail to bring anything new to a debate are, in my opinion, a serious waste of everyone's time. So, if you care about how your audience feels when they leave their seats, there are a few things you can do to become the panel host everyone wants to hear from again.


1.

Prepare

If you think no one will notice when you rock up to host a panel of experts whose names you don't remember, whose expertise you haven't researched and whose social media presence you haven't checked, it will be painfully obvious to everyone present. Always make yourself aware of the most interesting and divisive topics up for discussion and come ready to summarise, challenge or clarify. Reading LinkedIn bios and banal questions off a cheat sheet may get you through the event, but you won't be impressing anybody.


2.

Be aware of audience dynamics

Using"moderator's privilege" or, more plainly, asking too many of your own questions to fill in time, or to try and demonstrate your own credibility, is a signal to everyone that you can't work an audience. Before you begin your discussion, explain to the audience when they will have the floor to ask questions and for how long. Set out ground rules so that questions come from more than one person and are addressed to more than one panel member. Keep time, keep things fair and keep things moving.


3.

Be ready to call out ignorance and prejudice

As a panel host, it's your job to give the audience a voice. I've sat through some very awkward moments when a speaker has essentially said something outrageous, but the panel host has lacked the confidence to call them out and moved on.


There was the time a senior HR manager in my organisation implied that all staff at assistant level, including myself, were there to make the coffee. The time an elderly panel expert thought Czechoslovakia was an EU member state and, most recently, the time when the panel host themselves, a well-known investor, failed to remember the name and company of the only female speaker on stage. If you hear something that causes the audience to take a sharp intake of breath, then pause for a moment. Ask the person if that's really what they meant to say and, if it is, speak up respectfully on behalf of your audience.

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