Panel discussions are standard fare for conferences and other events, but they can prompt yawns from attendees. On the second day of the ASAE Great Ideas Conference, one expert suggested reinventing the format in ways that borrow more from pop culture than association events.
When it comes to panel discussions, are you better off borrowing ideas from TV shows and fan conventions?
I’m going to suggest that we spend as much time working on our panels as picking our main-stage speakers.
Kristin Arnold, president of Quality Process Consultants and a professional meetings facilitator, told attendees at her Monday morning session at the ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Orlando, Florida, that the most compelling formats for panel-based presentations come from outside the association space—and these can be effective starting points for reinvention.
“I’m going to suggest that we spend as much time working on our panels as picking our main-stage speakers,” she said.
A good place to start, Arnold said, are comic cons and other fan conventions, whose panels often feature packed crowds and drive high interest. These panels, which in many cases feature celebrities and surprise guests, have an air of exclusivity that gives them a must-attend feeling. Associations can strive to create a similar aura around their panels.
“Give them something exclusive that you can only get here and no place else,” Arnold said.
Meanwhile, TV shows have juiced up their panel discussions with clever staging. Arnold highlighted a variety of effective formats, including some based on shows like The Dating Game and Ellen. She recommended that conference content planners consider modeling their panels on successful programs like HBO’s debate-heavy Real Time With Bill Maher and the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which uses a cafe-style setting for scenes involving its ensemble cast.
A few other tips from Arnold:
Create strong visuals. A stage setup featuring a table with a black tablecloth and black chairs, with panelists wearing black clothing, can bore or distract the audience. So it’s important to create staging that’s visually interesting. And beware “Goldilocks chairs”—panelist seating that is too big or too small. Arnold recommends director’s chairs, which strike a good balance without being distracting.
Put the audience in a good position to engage. Audience seating is also an issue. A theater-in-the round setup, for example, is more dynamic than a flat, straight-on seating arrangement.
Keep the dialogue dynamic. “Here’s the deal with panelist dialogue: You really have to set the tone,” Arnold said. Before the event, don’t overprepare your speakers—you want the conversation to feel authentic, not stilted. During the session, you may need to shake things up by asking tough questions and occasionally engaging the audience on a topic recently discussed. And be sure not to let an individual speaker dominate the panel.
Arnold said starting off with a strong, creative intro is a good way to break the ice and get the audience prepped for a great panel discussion.
“Pick your format, pick your staging, and then come up with a really, really great opener,” she said.