Four Ways to Improve Remote Panel Discussions

Panel discussions, that old standby of in-person events, are actually well suited for the virtual meetings format. Here’s how to make your remote panels great.

There’s no stage. There’s no in-person audience. People aren’t even in the same room anymore. It seems like the pandemic would be bad news for panel discussions in the era of the virtual event, right?

But Kristin Arnold, the founder of Powerful Panels, has a positive take on their future.

“I think panels are increasing,” she says. “In the virtual space, they’re increasing more and more because the medium lends itself better to panels.” The change in format may actually be a virtue, she says, as it forces a more creative approach.

Here are some ways to bring the promise of remote panel discussions to life.

Don’t Be Afraid to Prerecord

Panels don’t have to be live anymore, and prerecording opens up a world of opportunities.

It’s true that “you lose that spontaneity that the audience can crave,” Arnold says. The trade-off? You might get speakers you wouldn’t normally be able to land. One way to help replicate the improvisational feel of a live discussion is to have panelists also take part in the text chat during the event—or even pause the recording when an audience member has a question.

Play With the Format

The shift in format means that the production shifts, too.

“People want that fireside chat,” Arnold says. “They want to be able to lean in, they want to see what you look like, what your background is.” But the new format also allows for the use of props and visuals. One tool she turns to is a pair of thumbs-up/thumbs-down paddles that speakers can use to interact with the moderator during the session. (You might have seen an approach like this on ESPN.)

Because speakers don’t have to stay stationary on a webcam, they can give quick tours of their spaces. If it’s a recorded session, they can add slides and other visuals. Arnold notes that remote sessions need to compete for attention with whatever else is going on in a viewer’s day, making more compelling formats particularly important.

“You have to be creative and have fun, because people are just going to multitask and zone you out,” she says. “So you have to switch gears about every six to eight minutes in the virtual space.”

Work With Your AV Team

Framing and AV considerations need to be front and center. Arnold has cited talk shows and sitcoms as inspiration for staging in-person panels; for virtual settings, think TV news.

Attention to what the audience will see is key, she says. At one virtual event she attended, a PowerPoint slide featuring a single question dominated the screen—even though the real focal point for the audience was the speaker giving a long answer.

“I’m looking at the little postage stamp,” she says of trying to watch the speaker on screen. “I already know what the question is—I don’t need to see the question.”

Arnold says panel organizers need to communicate clearly to the AV team what framing and focus will be needed during the session. She recommends establishing four different presets for virtual panels and rotating among them:

  • A single frame for the moderator—or two frames, if there are two moderators. If there is a host, he or she will also need a single frame.
  • A frame for the moderator and active speaker.
  • A frame for the active speaker by themselves.
  • A frame that displays all of the panelists.

Match the Format to the Audience and Content

Not every presentation type will work for every virtual event setting. The presentation should mirror the tone of the content. If the content is serious, for example, keep the format straightforward; edgier discussions might give you room for creativity.

“Let’s say you want a tone that is more controversial—you might set it up more like a debate,” she says. “You know, he said, she said, on Team A and Team B. You could do some fun things with colors in this virtual world.”


(RLT_Images/DigitalVision Vectors)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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