6 ways to make your next panel discussion super interactive

Being a good panel moderator is like being a good director, you can’t let one actor steal the show.

Moderating panels is just plain difficult. We’ve all witnessed the classic moderator mistakes: hogging the mic, not giving all the panelists equal time to speak and ignoring the audience.

But we sympathise with moderators! Moderating a panel is a real challenge. You often have to get a group of complete strangers to interact with each other naturally in a whole host of different ways, and you’re doing all this in front of a large audience!

It’s no mean feat. The panelists need to interact with each other. The audience members need to connect with one another. The moderator needs to connect with both the audience and the panelists. That’s a lot of interactivity to foster all on your own.

The key to a panel discussions’ success, and how happy your audience is, relies in creating this interactivity.

Lora Schellenberg, marketing lead at General Assembly and co-managing director of Girls in Tech UK, regularly moderates panel discussions. She says making your event interactive is the key to it lasting longer than one evening.

Making something engaging and exciting means people are more likely to tweet about it which ultimately creates a bit of a buzz around the event.

Lora-GA_round Lora Schellenberg, marketing lead at General Assembly 

How to create that engagement is the hard part. Luckily we have a few ideas. Here’s how to make your next panel discussion super interactive in six easy steps:

1/ Over prepare

Know everything you can about your panelists. And we mean everything. Their job role, their politics, where they’re from, what they like to eat for breakfast. The more personal stories, things they’ve said in the past and random facts you know, the better your rapport will be with them.  

Lora agrees, “It’s just like being a journalist. You need to understand who the people are, interact with them ahead of time and make sure they understand what the questions are.”

2/ Get the audience involved

Involve the audience within the first five minutes. This lets your audience know that you know they’re there, and it keeps your panelists from acting like they’re in a bubble. One idea is to get the audience to take part in an interactive poll at the beginning of the session. Try taking it again at the end and see if opinions have changed.

A large part of keeping the audience involved throughout actually comes down to picking the right panelists in the first place. Lora aims to make her events flow as naturally as possible.

“The idea is to really get people to talk candidly about their experiences. For example, I wouldn’t ask a startup founder to be on a panel without them understanding the need to talk about the rough times too and be a bit vulnerable. The vulnerability of the people that are on stage really helps the audience feel connected and that’s what I feel breaks down those barriers,” she says.

3/ Ask the questions your audience want

Know who’s in your audience. Have a look at the guest list before and check out the job titles, the positions, the company’s industry, their size, and anything that will help you understand what the audience wants to get out of the session. Then make sure you ask the questions that provide a solution to those needs. The audience will have much more to respond to.

Lora puts it perfectly, “you want to keep it engaging and exciting so you don’t want to talk about something people don’t really care about.”

4/ Talk specifics

As a moderator you need to be prepared, but the speakers need to be prepared as well. Prepare the panelists to share funny anecdotes, stories, and concrete examples to back up what they’re saying. Yes the audience will (or should) be listening the whole way through but it’s these anecdotes that they’ll really relate to. That’s what they’ll remember after it’s all over.

5/ Let the audience respond

As well as doing a Q&A session, see if you can get the audience involved throughout. After panelists have shared anecdotes or interesting stories, ask if anyone in the audience has had a similar experience. This will create a genuine and memorable conversation.

Having a digital tool like Wisembly to moderate the questions that come through from the audience can also help a lot. Lora says, “when the audience raises their hands to ask a question, you don’t necessarily know what they’re going to ask. It’s nice if you can have people submit them first and then you can choose which ones sound more interesting.”

6/ Don’t forget to listen!

Listen to what the panelists are actually saying, not what you think they’re going to say. Write notes so you can refer to a point a panelist has made and see if they connect with (or go against) things other panelists have said. This makes for a more fluid and engaging discussion.

… and after the event

Lora’s advice is to write a blog. “A lot of people say “I can’t make it to the event but I’d love to see what it was about”. If you write a blog you can give a summary of what it was about and incorporate some tweets. Create content that lasts forever as opposed to one evening.”


Get people tweeting and interacting and keep the discussion going after the event’s over. Introduce a hashtag at the start of the session, share the panelists’ Twitter handles and see the tweets start to roll in. This kind of digital collaboration, alongside real face-to-face interactions, will ensure that your panel discussion is less of an amateur one-man-show and more of an west-end musical ensemble.



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