03.13.19

The anatomy of a speaker panel: Exploring events beyond the keynote

The theme and topic of your event should influence your format. Here are tips for creating a strong speaker panel, as a compelling alternative to a keynote.

Glen Justice

Glen Justice is a content strategist and contributor ...

We all know that a good keynote can really carry an event. But is it always a necessity?

Experienced event planners know the theme and the topic should influence the format, and that there are compelling alternatives to a single keynote speaker. 

A panel of speakers can often leave the audience with deeper insight than a single person can provide. They present conflicting viewpoints, engage audiences with rapid interaction, and introduce an element of debate that otherwise wouldn't be possible. 

The fireworks can be fun, too.

Pick a Topic with Broad Expertise

Before you dig in on your choice of panelists, however, consider the topic.

Any subject that lends itself to more than one credible point of view will usually result in the most dynamic conversation for your audience. For example:

Politics. In today’s climate, most political issues in the U.S. aren't short on points of view, and they often diverge widely. It can help to have one panelist represent each side. A panel on U.S. immigration policy, for example, might have one proponent of border security and one advocate for immigrant rights.

World Affairs. Issues like trade and counter-terrorism are similarly polarizing. They lend themselves to multiple points of view and areas of expertise. A panel on trade, for instance, may have one expert on Chinese trade policy; one on U.S. trade policy; and one who analyzes the European Union. The rich mix of expertise will leave the audience with an enlightening educational experience.

The Economy. This topic is more specific, but it has broad impact. It has implications on policy measures, and can affect your organization's success and your people's pocketbooks. Bringing in experts on the matter — from Fed leaders to economists — can provide audiences with a balanced analysis on everything from job growth and inflation to the repercussions of a government shutdown.

Divisive Issues. The list of issues that have multiple vantage points is long — from abortion rights to marijuana legalization. Every industry has issues, too, that divide the professionals who work within it. Any topic with a well-defined pro and con, which could be tough to articulate by a single person, is a good candidate for a panel. 

Understand the Anatomy of a Strong Panel

Of course, a great panel is more than just a collection of people who are knowledgeable. 

The mix of panelists — their expertise, personalities, and styles — can have a huge impact on the experience created for the audience.

Pay attention to these six factors in order to create a panel that engages and educates attendees.

1. Choose conflict.

A panel on which everyone agrees is rarely compelling. One of the great aspects of a panel is that it presents conflicting viewpoints in a format that invites passionate debate. Conflict is endemic, so embrace it. Choose panelists who oppose one another. You don’t want yelling. But you do want an enthusiastic and informed argument.

2. Personalities matter.

Some speakers are more assertive than others. Try to choose a panel that is evenly matched, so that one panelist does not overshadow another. We’ve all seen panels where one participant sits silent, while another dominates the conversation. It's awkward. And that’s something you'll want to be sure to avoid.

3. Diversify experience.

Ensuring a mix of backgrounds when it comes to your panelist line-up is important, too. It helps create a more interesting narrative, with a varied perspective. To do this, consider balancing out your panel with both thinkers and doers. For instance, if you have in mind a key academic for one seat, contemplate putting a corporate executive in the other. 

4. Balance authority.

Balancing influence and notability shouldn't be an afterthought. If you pair a seasoned household name with a person who's largely unknown, it likely will spark confusion with your audience. Even if your roster is divergent on industry representation — where job titles vary widely — you can stabilize authority by searching for people of equal stature. A business leader with celebrity status, for example, can likely hold their own next to a prominent government leader.

5. Pay attention to size.

Too many panelists sitting on stage can be stifling to the debate — especially in a 60- or 90-minute format. There just isn’t enough time to let everyone have their say on multiple questions. How big is too big? That will depend on the event and the issue. But a well-chosen, two- or three-person panel is usually a solid plan of attack.

6. Add a moderator.

A moderator, chosen with as much care as the panelists, is a necessity. They can serve as a timekeeper, a referee, and an advocate for the audience -- stopping the action when explanation or clarification is needed. Without a moderator, panelists have to regulate themselves when it comes to how time is used, which can be a lot to ask. A neutral party, such as a journalist or analyst, is often a good choice to ask questions and control the debate.

Don't Ignore the Logistics

Before the event, discuss issues and questions with your panelists and come to some agreement on how time will be used.

The format needn't be rigid. In fact, the best panels often wander their way into interesting territory. But there should be some guidelines so that panelists can formulate arguments that can be conveyed effectively.

With a few rules and a professional in place to moderate, a passionate panel can be an unforgettable experience.

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