That's not to say that you *shouldn't* have panels. Panels *can* be a good solution--they just need to be thought-out and treated very conscientiously.
Here are some ways that you can "fix" a panel, or ensure that your panel isn't just another way to make your audience "check out":
1. Have a Great Moderator.
A panel without a moderator is like a ship without a rudder; the panelists can wander aimlessly or go off in the wrong direction, have unequal time or unequal focus on a subject.
A panel with a bad moderator adds nothing to the topic.
However, a lively, interactive moderator with a working knowledge of the subject matter can steer a panel away from tediousness or focusing too long on a subject. They can sense when the audience is getting restless and switch to a different panelist, change the tone of the discussion, or even wrap up. A great moderator can also inject humor and interaction in a skilled way.
2. Establish strict rules and structured content/outcomes.
We are amazed how frequently people design panels with no outcomes. Like any presentation, a panel should have a focused result in mind; at the end of the panel, what will the audience think, know, and do differently as a result of what they've heard?
Likewise, a panel should have structure and--dare we say it--some rules. The participants should know what to expect and what is expected of them. Too many times companies bring on guest panelists and therefore feel that they have no say over what the panelists choose to do. However, it is imperative to control the panel for the sake of content clarity and audience interest.
Rules sound imposing, but consider something like--say--the presidential debates. A debate isn't exactly the same thing, but imagine how different (long/one-sided/unfocused) they would be if the candidates didn't have firm time limits on their segments.
3. Solicit audience questions ahead of time.
Audience interaction and personalization is a wonderful thing. However, audience questions during a panel so often go astray; audience members ask questions that are only relevant to them, feel shy about asking "real" questions, or just ask questions for the sake of getting face-time.
We wouldn't suggest cutting out audience interaction, but soliciting audience questions ahead of time allows for a number of things:
- You get to sort through the questions to select the most broadly relevant topics.
- You can pre-prepare the panelists so they have relevant/good/thorough answers.
- You can make sure that you get the quality and caliber of questions that you need to make an interesting segment.
- You can steer away from or toward controversy as desired--and you don't get caught up in the mire of a sore subject.
4. Take a cue from late night talk shows--pre-interview panelists to get stories.
Late night talk show guests almost always seem witty, charming, funny and engaging on the show. This isn't because they all *are* witty, charming, funny and engaging (though some may very well be) it's because they have a skilled interviewer (similar to a skilled moderator) and they have been pre-interviewed to get stories.
Stories are one of the most powerful engagement tools a presenter can use. Our brains are naturally attracted to a story; we want to know what happens, brain wave activity increases, we enter active listening mode. A late night talk show guest will have a list of stories prepared that the interviewer can draw from to make the guest seem innately interesting. A panelist should do the same thing; have a reference list of relevant stories and examples prepared around the content at hand.
5. Find points of disagreement/controversy/interest and bring it out.
In pre-panel interviews, find the elements of the topic that will make panelists disagree or--to put it a more diplomatic way--offer differing perspectives. That's not to say that there should be a panel of negativity or fighting--but panels where the only thing a panelist has to contribute to another's opinion is agreement and elaboration get stale fairly quickly. Panelists should be able to talk about a topic from different, diverse angles and bring their unique spin, perspective and opinion to the table in a way that intrigues the audience and inspires them to hear more. Even if there are only one or two points of disagreement or controversy, sprinkle them into the panel to add interest.