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Learn to chair business panel discussions successfully and raise your profile

Learn to chair business panel discussions successfully and raise your profile

As a start-up founder you’ll know that attending business panel discussions is a great way to hear about the opinions and experiences of subject matter experts. In addition, taking on the role of moderating (chairing) a panel at business events is an excellent way to raise your profile and to demonstrate your own expertise. 

If you have not done this before you may be wondering what you need to know in order to do a good job.  Let me share what I have learned though my own preparation for taking on the role of a panel discussion moderator.

The best laid plan may go awry

As much as you may want your panel discussion to run with no hiccups, there are simply too many uncontrollable variables that are not in your favour. These range from technical glitches to over-dominating panellists, so it’s best to prepare your mindset for a situation where you may have to improvise. In a panel discussion I once moderated, technical glitches caused a speaker to lose connection. This resulted in me having to improvise on the spot to keep up the momentum of the discussion.

One way to prepare for the unplanned is to enhance your impromptu speaking skills. This can be done in a group or even alone. Practising in a group is the best method to start with as you can simulate the feeling of speaking in front of an audience. You can do this with a group of friends or by seeking out public speaking groups such as Toastmasters where you can practise talking about any topic without prior preparation. Even if you don’t have access to a group that you can practise with, giving yourself a random topic to talk about for a few minutes in the comfort of your own home is also a good way to prepare for a situation where you are forced to improvise as a panel discussion moderator.

Prepare with the panellists

After accepting that situations may change without notice, the next step is to make sure that your panellists are aligned on the flow of the discussion. This can involve confirming the allotted time for the whole discussion and sharing your questions in advance with the panellists so they have ample time to prepare their answers.

Common occurrences in panel discussions are awkward silences or where a panellist goes completely off-topic. Both cases may frustrate audience members who could feel that they are not getting the experience and insight they had hoped for.

One method you can use to offset these risks is to assign each question to the specific panellist who can add the most value. This panellist will be your main speaker to answer the question, and then you can check if the other panellists also want to contribute to the answer. Doing this preparation can help you to avoid situations where panellists are caught off guard with a question they cannot answer or having them go off on a tangent in an attempt to answer.

Make sure that everyone gets to talk

An important role of the moderator is to make sure that the panel discussion actually feels like a discussion. It is thus key to spot signs of a panellist trying to turn it into their very own keynote presentation. If you see that one panellist is dominating the discussion or making a lengthy speech, it is crucial that you to speak up. A key to being able to do this is to listen to the discussion at hand rather than focusing on your performance as a moderator. By doing this, you’ll be able to ask relevant follow-up questions to the panellists that have spoken less, thus also pushing the discussion forward.

For those situations where you are faced with a dominating speaker, a good technique is to preface a question as a ‘lightning round’ or request a ‘one sentence’ answer if time is limited.

Learn to navigate the Q&A section

After your panellists finish speaking, you may have questions from audience members who would like to learn more about the topic. Instead of having your audience shout out their questions, find a way (there are various apps etc. that can help here) to have questions sent to you throughout the whole panel discussion. This way you’ll have a wider selection of questions to pick from and you’ll also be able to filter out any inappropriate questions. You’ll then be able to ask relevant and popular questions that will add value to the audience and provide them with a more insightful experience.

A nightmare for all moderators is a situation where there are no questions at all from an unengaged audience. One method to mitigate this is to prepare your own set of extra questions which you can share with the panellists in advance.  If you’re involved in a panel on start-ups, you’ll be able to use your knowledge and expertise to device some valuable questions.  Arm with these questions you’ll be able to avoid the awkward silence as you wait for questions to come in from the audience. Furthermore, you can continue the momentum of the session with your prearranged questions and may well spark other questions from audience members.

End with a call-to-action 

You have finally made it to the end of your panel discussion, but what is the best way to finish? One good technique is to summarise briefly the key points that the panel discussion aimed to convey and conclude with a call to action. A ‘call to action’ is an invitation to the audience to take a desired action. This can be for the audience to reach out to the panellists if they have any further questions, or to visit a website for more resources on the topic. This can help you prolong the engagement you have with the audience and give them a clear sense of what they can do with the insight gained from the discussion.

Practice makes perfect

It’s easy to sit in an audience and listen to panel discussions but it takes a level of preparation to successfully moderate one. The preparation doesn’t have to start when you know you have a panel discussion coming up. It can begin right now, as you consistently hone your mindset and impromptu speaking skills in front of a group of people or even when you are alone.  This is an invaluable skill for all entrepreneurs.  

Practice makes perfect! So, use your entrepreneurial drive to proactively find opportunities to practice, for example, presenting a new idea to your team and engaging them in a discussion, or chairing a discussion at a local community event. With consistent practice, you’ll be on a path to moderating any panel discussion with ease and could find yourself in demand as your profile grows.


Jon Lam is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

Jon Lam