Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Some panels are excellent.
Some panels promise to be excellent. And then threaten to suck every last cell out of you with how boring and sucky they are.
Panels I’ve hosted have been both excellent, and probably sucky. But I’ve recently returned home from a (THANKFULLY) excellent experience hosting a panel at INBOUND, a conference with hundreds of speakers and 11,000 attendees.
I’m BEEEEYONNND grateful to share that it went well, and many people even said it was their favorite session from the week, which is a HUGE deal for me. John Mulaney, who performed at INBOUND, made a joke about how it’s the world’s most overscheduled conference. The fact that our little panel made a powerful impact blows me away.
But alas. So many panels suck. I’ve been to many and sadly hosted a few. Why suck? They’re boring, repetitive, and feature very questionable uses of time.
This article is my attempt to break down how to make panels Actually Good. This is for you especially if you’re hosting / moderating / facilitating a panel.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Your responsibility as a panel host
- How to guide your audience
- Notes on safety and effectiveness
P.S. if you’re looking for an experience designer for your next event, come chat. I’d love to support you in making magic.
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Your responsibility as a panel host
Repeat after me.
My responsibility, as a panel host, is to guide the audience, safely and effectively, through a finite learning journey.
If you repeated that statement and rolled your eyes or had a better definition, PLEASE let me know! I came up with this one based on my own experiences, and I hope it will continue to evolve.
But for now, let’s break this down:
- Guide the audience: You are welcoming tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people in to an unfamiliar journey. They showed up to this panel because they wanted to learn something about the speakers and the subject matter. Which means… they don’t already know what to expect! No matter how “clearly defined” your panel is, you have a responsibility to be a good guide. I’ll provide some examples later in this article, but for now, if you’ve ever had an excellent walking tour in a new city—think about that!
- Safely: People are wildcards! Anything could happen during a panel. The most common way safety comes up during panels, in my experience, is when speakers (unintentionally) make the audience feel like they don’t belong. This can manifest in overuse of acronyms, unclear jargon, or language that excludes. It’s your job to clarify what the heck is going on, and also find opportunities to clarify and reinforce inclusive language.
- Effectively: STAY ON TIME. STAAAAAAAYYYY. ONNNN. TIME. Come up with a general time-blocked schedule (e.g. 5 mins of intro total, 20 mins of Q&A, 5 mins of closing actions) and STICK TO IT. Prepare your speakers. Bonk them over the head with how important it is to stay on time when you tell them they only have 30 seconds to introduce themselves. And if speakers are going over, gently but firmly cut them off.
- Finite learning journey: You, as the panel host, are creating a magical space. It’s a microcosm of learning. It’s a lil sampler. Yum! Remember that most panels, because of the number of speakers and the limited time, aren’t meant to be deep dives. You get to choose where to spend time, and most importantly, you get to decide how you’ll direct the audience from the sample spoon to the whole ice cream purchase. 🍨😋
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How to guide your audience
Here are two moments you can take advantage of in a panel: the starting and the closing.
Are you cackling because of how obvious it sounds?
I’ve attended… who knows, hundreds of panels, both virtual and in-person in my life, and zero of them have introduced both strong starting and closing moments, other than the ones I’ve hosted*. It sounds arrogant! I know! But again, it has NOTHING to do with any innate talents I have! It’s just that most people take the set structure of a panel and run with it:
You start right away with intros to the speakers, and end with how to stay in touch.
And that’s great! But it’s not memorable. And in my opinion, if it’s not memorable, it won’t stick, and it won’t turn into action. So you may have had a GREAT learning experience, but it won’t get implemented. Yikes!
*I am not saying great panels don’t exist. Maybe I have just attended very standard ones. Who knows!!
So how do you create a strong starting moment?
In my recent talk at INBOUND, a world-renowned marketing conference with 11,000 attendees, I was hella scared about my starting moment. Because unlike most panels I’ve hosted, this one happened 1) on the conference floor where people could come and go as they pleased and 2) right before Reese Witherspoon’s talk, so people definitely wanted to go find good seats.
However, I summoned the courage to do my two activities:
- A 20-second grounding visualization. The topic of our panel was creating belonging through life-changing community programs. I invited our audience to take 20 seconds to close their eyes and think about a time during the week at INBOUND where they felt supported. We inhaled and exhaled deeply afterwards, and I reminded people that this feeling of support is always available to them, and that every single person has the power to create support, belonging, and community connection. I peeked out behind my own semi-closed eye and was thrilled to see people actually doing the exercise.
- Smile, say, seal. I invited everyone to find one person near them that they didn’t know, smile at them, say, “I’m so grateful you’re here today”, and seal their connection by bumping badges, which is this really cool technology by Klik where you can exchange contact info simply by pressing your badges together. 🤯 The activities I introduce are always topic-specific and evidence-backed. In this case, it’s been researched that smiling at a stranger even from six feet away can reduce feelings of loneliness. And numerous studies have been done on the connective power of gratitude. Seeing people get up from their seats, cross aisles, and sit next to someone new was so powerful. I could feel that people were really invested now in our panel content, and it laid the groundwork for everyone to be present with my amazing co-speakers.
Your exercises can be anything you want, but I love introducing a shared grounding moment. I usually save the interactivity for the closing moment, but given how well this one went, we’ll probably run it back. 💨
What about a strong closing moment?
Remember how I said out of the hundreds of panels I’ve attended, zero have introduced both strong starting AND closing moments? That’s because it’s A HARD TASK.
I’d say my INBOUND closing moment was mild to medium. But probably on the mild side. So instead, I’ll tell you what I wanted to do:
Have people take a picture with their new friend(s) that they met through smile-say-seal and tag INBOUND with it on social media (Instagram or LinkedIn), to further solidify the connections. I wanted people to immediately stay connected. I was also hoping to introduce a closing conversational prompt that people could discuss as they walked over to Reese Witherspoon’s talk together.
The hard part of a panel at a conference, or during an event with a lot going on, is that people arrive and leave at any time.
Challenges aside, I aim for my closing moment to reduce the activation energy for the audience to take the next step. For example, when we host letter-writing events to incarcerated people, I ensure that people at least address their envelopes and start writing their introductions. When I host events to minimize food waste, I’ll have people commit to one recipe they’re going to make from the ingredients already in their fridge this week. When I host anything community-related, I try to ensure people have at least one person they can follow up with afterwards to build on the knowledge they learned during the panel, which is what we did at INBOUND.
Notes on safety, effectiveness, and finite learning journeys
- Language matters. Hubspot (the company that hosted INBOUND) actually has a guide to inclusive language on their website! It’s about progress, not perfection, so there’s no need to lose sleep over it. But there are some reeeallllyyy simple things you can do as a panel moderator! Like saying “hey everyone” instead of “hey guys”, or rewording something one of your speakers said. I personally believe you, as the panel host, have a far greater responsibility towards inclusion than your co-speakers, because YOU are the guide.
- Be intentional about accessibility. Since you are the one organizing the panel, you can make requests, like using closed captions, having an interpreter, and so on. I’m no accessibility expert, and you don’t have to be either—you can just do a little bit of internet research on how you can create a safe environment for your audience.
- The best way to stay on time is to time-block, and then over-emphasize these constraints to your speakers. I was very clear with my co-speakers that their intros should be 1-2 sentences / 30 seconds long, and that they’d have 5 full minutes to do a deeper dive into their personal stories later in the panel.
- Also, don’t do too much. I had a slide deck for INBOUND, but made the game-time decision to cut it. This helped me focus on the speakers, the audience, and the timer. Even though we had 4 speakers including me and 30 minutes, I still felt a sense of time-spaciousness I wasn’t expecting. Pare down your panel to the bare minimum, because that’s what makes space for high-quality insights.
- And if a speaker doesn’t stay on time, you adapt—here’s how. Okay cutting off your speakers is MUCH easier said than done. The best way I’ve learned this skill (still in progress) is by observing other great facilitators. Whenever there’s a Q&A, I observe the Q’ers more closely than the A’ers. They generally fly under the radar! Guy Raz was live at INBOUND with the co-founders, and he found spaces in the conversation to interject and redirect. If a speaker is rambling, you can actively look for a pausing point (literally this can be when they take a second to breathe). You can reclaim the conversation by acknowledging their insight, and redirecting the question, either to another speaker, or just by synthesizing what you just learned from them. Sherrell Dorsey expertly synthesized Morgan DeBaun’s answers during their Q&A about Blavity. Interjecting, redirecting, and synthesizing keep the attention on the speakers while reminding the audience that this is for them.
So if you’re ready to make panels better (closing moment, kind of), share this post with one idea YOU have to make panels more vibrant!