Most conferences or conventions, whether live or virtual, have at least one session that involves expert panelists. You may have come across a panel discussion and not thought much about planning and producing one. 

But what if you’re planning to run a panel discussion for the first time? For event organizers or panel moderators, panel discussions can be tricky to balance. You have to consider the medium, the audience questions, how to navigate multiple points of view, all while keeping the conversation interesting!

This guide will help you understand more about panel discussions (both in-person or virtual), tips on running them successfully, as well as how to plan and host virtual panel discussions.

What is a panel discussion?

Panel discussions usually follow the same structure no matter what the industry or the event: 3-5 panel members who are subject matter experts discuss topics in their field in front of audience members. It’s a moderator’s job to guide the discussion between the audience, the panelists, as well as between fellow panelists. 

Depending on the formality of the event, audience questions are either taken directly from the live audience or curated ahead of time. 

It’s important to note that panel discussions are exactly that — discussions. They aren’t 1:1 interviews with individuals, Q&As, or sets of PowerPoint presentations. 

The main purpose of a great panel discussion is to share knowledge and wisdom, inspire deep thought, and offer valuable takeaways for the audience.

Guide your panel discussion with our free template

Channel your favorite on-screen interviewer with this punchy interview deck template. Introduce each speaker, set the agenda, and dive into the most important topics your audience cares about.

5 quick tips to run a successful panel discussion

Organizing a panel discussion can be a little daunting at first. So in this section, we’re going to talk about five quick tips that’ll give you a great foundation. These tips are relevant whether you’re running an in-person event or a virtual one.

1. Determine the purpose

It may be easy to think of a panel discussion as a fun and easy company activity, but without a real purpose, it can fall flat. Ideally, the discussion should center around a specific topic — such as a problem in your industry or where people (or your company) can make innovations in a specific area. 

In fact, our recent survey found 64% and 63% of participants say that the quality of speakers and relevance of content respectively drive them to sign up for events.

Relevance of content and speakers is key when driving registrations

2. Make sure the content is relevant and interesting

In a similar vein to deciding your purpose, from there you can determine if your topic is relevant and interesting enough to warrant a panel discussion. If the topic is too shallow or irrelevant to your audience, you risk running out of key points and going off-topic — ultimately lowering the value of the event. 

That being said, most panel discussions are between 60-90 minutes long. So it’s also worth ensuring you don’t choose a topic too deep where key points might be missed and you run out of airtime.

3. Have the moderator and panelists meet beforehand

If you (as a moderator) only meet your panelists last minute (or vice versa), you run a few risks that can derail your discussion. 

Good moderators know their panelists enough to not offend them when they need to cut off their point to move on. Likewise, the panelists can feel comfortable enough to bounce off of the moderator and other panelists in the discussion.

It’s also a great opportunity to get your panelists preferred bios and follow-up information.

4. Keep the discussion structured, but relaxed

Many public speaking events start off with both the audience and the speaker(s) feeling a little tense. A great way to make sure the tension doesn’t stay there is to have a quick fireside chat first. These more informal chats can help warm up your audience to the main panel discussion.

But make no mistake, while everyone should be relaxed enough to speak, there should still be structure to the discussion. A good way to provide this structure is to create a webinar presentation. The presentation can have slides of specific questions from the audience, or key points to discuss and move through.

5. Engage with the audience, even if you’re curating the questions

No matter the size of your event, keeping the audience engaged is the top priority of a panel discussion — if they’re not, why have it in the first place? You can engage with smaller audiences more easily, for example fielding live questions, getting opinions from them, and asking about their takeaways.

With larger audiences, it can be trickier. Depending on your topic, you could involve them in quick experiments, like how Wendy MacNaughton had members draw each other without looking at their papers. Or you could even run a quiz to break the ice or even find knowledge gaps in your audience.

Following these tips will help you make sure your panel discussion is interesting and engaging for your audience, as well as one that provides rich, valuable insights for both them and your company.

What is a virtual panel discussion?

The main ideas of a panel discussion are exactly the same for virtual panel discussions. The key difference is that one type is in-person while the other is online. 

A virtual panel discussion is an online event or webinar comprised of a moderator, panelists, and an audience who collectively discuss a thought-provoking topic with the aim of leaving the event inspired and better informed.

Given how the global pandemic has affected the way we work and communicate, virtual panel discussions have become even more popular than before.

How to plan and host a virtual panel discussion in 4 steps

In this section, we’re going to talk about planning virtual events, in this case, a panel discussion. However, you should consider these steps and tips as additions to the points we’ve already gone over above (no need to repeat the same info!). 

This is especially given that virtual panel discussions have unique challenges, such as technology fumbles, audience engagement, and keeping the conversation going when you don’t have eye contact with them. With that in mind, let’s now take a look at these other steps.

1. Choose a hosting platform

If you have a great virtual panel discussion idea, you’ll need to find a way to host it — otherwise, the idea will be dead in the water. 

To help you determine what software to choose from, try to answer the following questions:

  • Are you planning for a very large, broad audience, or a smaller, niche audience?
  • Will you want to have interactive elements in your discussion?
  • Will you be paywalling or otherwise gating the event?

Answering these main questions will help you narrow down the options available to you. For example, if you’re planning for a large audience, using a video conference call software like Zoom might prove to be an organizational (and bandwidth) nightmare — especially if audiences all use their cameras.

Instead, you might prefer using virtual event platform to easily manage both your production elements and speakers to make for a lively conversation. You may also want to try live streaming for a more complex production setup or if you’re looking to simulcast to channels like Facebook or YouTube Live where your audience can discuss and ask questions live in the comments. 

2. Plan well in advance

You might think that given how much planning can be involved in physical events, online events would be much easier to organize. The truth is they’re both of equal difficulty, you just direct the effort in different ways. 

For example, when inviting speakers to an in-person event, it’s best to arrange their transportation (at least to the event) — on the other hand, if you’re running a virtual panel discussion you need to know if they have the right equipment (as well as any accessibility requirements).

In general, there are some common best practices if you’re wondering how to plan a virtual panel discussion beyond finding panelists and hosts:

Make a list of technical requirements. This includes both software, such as live streaming capabilities, as well as hardware like cameras, lighting, and microphones (and check if the panelists can fulfill these requirements).

Make an event flow or agenda. Of course, you’ll create an agenda or event flow for all panel discussions — but for virtual panel discussions, you’ll also need to figure out how you’ll transition between parts of the event online and how much time you’ll give for panelists to speak or respond to questions.

Prep your panelists. Your presenters are driving the discussion. If they’re excited, your audience is excited. So make sure you’ve dedicated enough time to prep speakers, provide feedback, and coach when needed so they’re confident and camera ready for the virtual stage.

Prepare some questions in advance. Some audiences can be a little shy, so it’s always worth preparing some questions in advance with the panelists to avoid awkward silences.

Be considerate of time zones. When organizing a time for your virtual panel discussion, make sure you consider the time zones of both your panelists and your audience.

Test everything. It’s always best practice to test any technology you’re using before going live for your event — 59% of webinar participants are likely to switch off an event early if there are technical difficulties.

Once you have the organizational basics planned out, it’s time to think about how you can optimize the audience experience.

3. Optimize the experience for attendees

One aspect of event planning that people often overlook is engaging with the audience prior to the event even starting. When you first start planning, it’s all about the topic, what speakers to include, how to run the event — with less thought going into the marketing.

Of course, the idea of an interesting discussion with great questions can be enough to tempt some people to sign up, but most will need to be convinced. 

For example, it would be a great idea to create a video landing page that talks about the objectives of the panel discussion and the value it will provide to the audience. 

But the marketing doesn’t end there. When people register for the event, make sure to capture their email so you can send them an email sequence leading up to it. Your email sequence can include: 

  • Speaker spotlights (in-depth bios)
  • Details of the agenda
  • Information about submitting questions
  • General hype and reminders about the event 
  • Create and provide a link to a pre-event Slack group for attendees to network beforehand

Even when the event is over, you have opportunities to provide even more value to your audience with follow-up email sequences that can include:

  • A takeaway sheet (key points discussed and pithy Tweet-able summaries)
  • Free downloads or resource guide relating to the event topic
  • Request for feedback on the event

When it comes to optimizing virtual panel discussions, you want to think about what type of value does the audience get from in-person panels and how you can replicate (or even beat) them with virtual panels. 

4. Engage your virtual audience

With many people working from home for over a year now (myself included), Zoom fatigue is a hurdle you’ll have to help your audience overcome.  So our final “step” is a set of tips to help you keep a virtual audience engaged with your panel discussion. 

Panelist diversity

For starters, when building your panel make sure you keep diversity in mind. If all of your panelists come from the same background you’ll struggle to get a variety of viewpoints — which is a quick way to dead-end a discussion.

Encourage audience questions

You may have been able to come up with a list of questions by speaking to the panelists and getting some from attendees prior to the event. In which case, knowing submitted questions will be answered might keep the asker around. 

However, if you open up a spot for live questions from the audience as well, it might keep those around who didn’t have a chance to submit questions beforehand. 

Provide moments of interactivity

Let’s face it, sometimes talking can just be a little boring — especially when the audience has a chance to be distracted at home. 

To keep people actively engaged try using polls to gauge opinions quickly (which you can do on most social media platforms, though Twitter is likely the better choice).

Another option is to encourage discussion among audience members in the platform chat. This can be useful if a particular question or answer has inspired a lot of debate but the moderator needs to move on. 

Let them network

Many of us have done it — gone to an event, participated, talked to a bunch of new people, but forgot to actually share contact details (who was that guy again?). 

The end of the panel discussion proper is a great time to offer (or remind) audience members to network with each other. In Zoom, you can do this by creating “breakout rooms” for smaller groups of members to speak to each other (instead of bombarding the main room with email addresses). 

Alternatively, you can refer them back to the Slack group you created prior to the event.

Following these tips running up to, during, and after the event will help you ensure it all goes smoothly and that you’re providing real value to your audience.

Panel discussions FAQ

What is an example of a panel discussion?

Examples of a panel discussion include discussions around health and safety protocols for Covid-19 as well as discussions on global climate change strategies. Other examples of panel discussions include internal panels where companies invite speakers to discuss a topic or public panels that include politicians, who discuss policy issues and invite audience members to ask questions.

How do you structure a panel discussion?

Panel discussions generally follow the same structure no matter what the topic:

  • Welcome everyone to the event
  • Introduce panelists
  • Initial topic presentation/introduction
  • Curated questions from before the event
  • Live questions from the audience
  • Summary of the key points discussed
  • Final thanks and remarks
  • Audience networking period

Wrapping up

Running a panel discussion, whether it’s virtual or in-person, can be an exciting way for your company to provide value to your customers as well as your industry as a whole. But they can be a little tricky to bring to life — and keep people engaged when the event is live.

However, the steps and tips in this guide will help you not only create an invaluable experience but do so with confidence. With Vimeo events, live streaming, and Vimeo Integration with Zoom, you several options to produce, store. and share your virtual panel discussion long after the event is over.

Go live with your next virtual panel discussion