Dull Panel Discussions? Five Ways to WOW Your Audience

Let’s collectively put an end to dull panel discussions. Panel discussions are part and parcel of most events, but so many lack energy and are just, well, dull.  This is so frustrating, because I have witnessed how, with the right planning and a great interactive engagement solution such as OpenMeet, panel discussions can be transformed from being stage-managed and low-energy to being exciting, edgy, and valuable to the panel and participants alike.


1. Be brave, be flexible, and use technology

There is a vast array of interactive technologies you can use.  However, you need to do your research, understand what you want to deliver (and how), and then find a supplier who will be able to accommodate your needs and expectations.

At OpenMeet we regularly work with organisations who are dipping a toe into the interactive engagement technology sector. Understanding risk, reliability, and service delivery are all key to producing successful audience engagement.

2. Ask questions at the very beginning

By asking some questions at the beginning of an event to obtain delegates’ views and opinions, you can glean valuable data which will then help inform the panelists, allowing them to tailor their responses.

At a recent event, we set up polls to ask about how relevant the topic to be discussed was to each participant, and how they would describe their knowledge and understanding of it. We also included a free text poll that said ‘I wish I knew…’ – this left some room for the audience members to comment about anything else they were unsure of.

We found this to be more effective than just having a general discussion about the subject, as the panelists could tailor their conversations and responses to the needs of the audience.

3. Know the questions before you ask “Any questions?”

In most events the discussion takes place and then towards the end of the event comes the usual refrain, “Does anyone have any questions?” At this stage two things usually happen: 1) either there are no questions (oh dear), or 2) the questions don’t reflect what has happened before them, and are the same questions the audience would have asked at the start!

At OpenMeet we advocate engaging the audience early – preferably within the first five minutes – to allow the panel and the audience to make the best use of the Q&A. Audiences are a diverse bunch.  A mix of personalities, profiles, cultures, and sometimes languages. Making use of interactive technology gives everyone the opportunity to ask their ‘burning question’.

Now massive plug alert (!) but trust me it is worth it. OpenMeet offers an ‘upvoting’ feature that gives the audience the chance to identify the most relevant questions, which they most want to see answered. Questions will then move to the top of the screen – and to the attention of the panel – as they accumulate votes.

Recently we ran an event where the majority of the delegates had English as a second language. We could take questions in different languages as we had a multilingual panel. We were also able to moderate and interpret the questions (seeking clarity when needed) from those who wanted to ask questions live but were not confident English speakers.

4. Keep the audience engaged by having mini panels within the allotted time

Some homework for you: watch ‘Question Time’ on TV. It demonstrates a lot of the positive principles we advocate. It includes segments focused on a few different questions, and then the audience is asked their opinions.

In the way this is set up, the hour passes quickly and there is no single question or theme which might be less relevant for the majority. It works because even if you are not interested in a topic that is being discussed, you know a new topic is coming up soon.

Think of audience engagement in chunks of time, with ‘white space’ between topics that you can take advantage of. Use it to ask the audience to reflect and ask questions through the interactive technology.

You can run a live poll at the start of each section, share the results with the panel, ask them what they think based on what the audience has said, and ask them to adapt their responses to meet the needs of the majority.

5. Check in with the audience during the discussion.

We recently delivered interactivity during an event where there was a good old-fashioned panel discussion. It was a lively debate with clear support for and against each side.

Normal practice would be to ask the audience at the end of the panel, do you accept A or B? But this time around, we encouraged the panel to engage differently –  we asked at the beginning whether the audience were for or against. This gave us a score which clearly showed a clear majority for one of the arguments.

This created a positive tension in the room, and immediately there was a buzz around whether any of the panelists could shape and change the audience’s opinions. Panelists worked harder to encourage and engage their supporters and dissenters, and when we finally ran the same poll at the end, although the strongest proposition from the beginning won out again, it did so with a reduced majority.

Not only did this allow the panel to measure ‘movement’ of their audience, it provided a dynamic context for discussion and engagement.


So, should you change? Are panel discussions really about wowing your audience?

The principles for successful panel discussions are common across most elements of a meeting. Involve your audience early, ask them what they already know and want to know, and ask them what they think as the discussion progresses.

Most importantly of all, don’t forget to measure whether you have changed their views and understanding of the topic by the end of the event.



If you’d like to know more about how OpenMeet can improve your audience engagement, book a demo with us here.

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