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Facilitating Effective Panel Discussions

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Facilitating Panel Discussions – Top 5 Potential Traps

Imagine you are the facilitator of a high-level panel discussion with an audience of a couple of hundred delegates. You’ve done this before so you know that you have to do a great deal of preparation to make sure everything runs smoothly. You make sure you find out as much as you can about the panelists beforehand, their career, personal stories, articles they may have written about the topic. You speak to them before the event, find out what their view is and their “angle” for the panel discussion. You find out if there are issues they are not comfortable addressing. You have also researched the topic so you feel confident about creating an engaging and dynamic dialogue between the panelists and the audience.  

So what can go wrong?

  1. The panelists are not prepared
    You ask them for their answer to the first question (which they had received before the event) and they look at you blankly. They have no idea how to answer the question. An awkward silence fills the room. What’s your backup plan? Luckily, you’ve done your research so know about the background of each of the panellists. Start asking them questions about themselves and what they’ve done. They can definitely answer those.
  2. You forget to monitor the time
    It is such an interesting debate that you get caught up in the discussion and forget the process. You glance at your watch and find out that your time is running out and you’re still on question one! Do you rush through the rest of the topics or end on a one topic high? It would be too difficult to cover any of the other topics in the time allowed so you need to summarise and pull everything together as best you can.
  3. You allow the topic to digress into something else
    It happens so quickly you don’t even notice. One minute they are talking about the topic on the discussion handout, the next minute they are talking about the problem of dogs without a lead. Where did that come from? The delegates and the other panellists have lost interest and you have lost the focus and the dynamic of the meeting. This is where you need to take control, summarise neatly and move to the next topic.
  4. You let one member of the audience take over
    Questions from the audience are always nerve wracking as you have no control over what they are going to say. Sometimes they can go on for ever, making more of a speech than asking a question. In other instances, they ask numerous follow up questions, never happy with the panellists answers and digging for more information. It is very easy to let a member of the audience take over, so you need to be clear on the rules and allow one question from each and no grandstanding!
  5. You let one panelist dominate the others
    This is one of the most common pitfalls of a panel discussion of experts. The experts love to talk and can talk at length and with a great deal of passion about their subject. They actually have no desire to share the platform with any other expert and sometimes even do their best to prevent the others from speaking. Again, you have to step in and take control. You can set the ground rules at the start allowing a certain amount of time for each panellists to present their answer on the specific topic and be very strict on the timing. Never worry about interrupting to allow someone else to speak. That’s the role of the facilitator.

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