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How to Lead a Great Panel Discussion

In my work in training and preparing business executives and professionals for service on nonprofit boards of directors, I facilitate panel discussions. The panelists include corporate leaders who chair and serve on NGO boards, and CEOs of global, national, and regional nonprofits. I've always said that the best panel discussions are more like Broadway shows. You get across the vital learning content—but with spontaneous drama, engaging the audience in the personalities and dynamics of the panelists and the stories and experiences they are conveying.

At the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) during the past week, it was fun, for a change, to be part of the audience that observes panels led by others. The panel led by Diane Sawyer, "Investing in Women and Girls," definitely won the prize for best drama: There was diversity of opinion on the panel and Sawyer made sure we heard it, graciously.

Here's what it takes to put on a panel discussion that will rivet your audience:

  1. Panelists from diverse perspectives, each of whom has expertise on the topic. I always felt that most of my job as facilitator was in identifying and recruiting the right people for the panel in the first place.
  2. Comfortable seats that allow panelists to face each other, and no table as barrier to the audience.
  3. A facilitator who understands the issues, listens carefully to the panelists, and can roll with the flow but keep to the key issues. Sometimes the facilitator has to gracefully interrupt panelists to keep a good momentum going.
  4. An opening statement from the facilitator to lay out the key themes: short, focused.
  5. No opening statements from panelists. The facilitator dives in, but with the right question to engage each panelist from the start. And with a pithy reference to each panelist's credentials. (The bios should be provided in a handout.)
  6. For audience questions, I like to invite people to state their question themselves if the audience is small enough (under 100). In larger audiences, people can submit their questions electronically.
  7. To build energy and foster learning, the facilitator encourages panelists to ask each other questions—and stimulates and respects different perspectives on issues and problem-solving.

The audience is there to learn. The facilitator's role is to engage the audience and the panel together in a learning adventure.

Photo: Janet Mayer / PR Photos