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15 ways to become the perfect panel host…

Matthew Grant writes about what makes a great panel host, tapping into the wisdom he has gained after hosting over 500 panel discussions, interviews or podcasts in the last 6 years.

Do you want to meet new people, raise your profile and dive more deeply into topics that fascinate you?

Are you always saying “no” when invited to sit on a panel or host one?

I’ve hosted over 500 panel discussions, interviews or podcasts in the last 6 years. Most have been fun and I’ve always learnt something. 

The first time I was asked to host a panel I tried to find a good guide to help me plan and prepare for the event. I couldn’t find one. I feared my panel would be a disaster. 

I survived and today I am frequently asked to be on other people’s panels as well as running many of the discussions we host through InsTech. A few weeks ago I was asked for my advice on hosting panels by a founder and CEO with experience at senior levels in global companies. He’s already a great communicator with a compelling story to tell. I realised that if someone at this level is still asking for advice then it’s worth me gathering some thoughts together on what has worked for me that may help others. 

Many of these suggestions are relevant for both live events and for digital events such as webinars. The approach is similar across most industries. I’ve hosted events in Europe, North America and Asia. Regional differences are minor. The comments are aimed at those hosting events, but if you are going to be a panelist for the first time, you will also find these helpful. If you find even one of these helpful please do let me know.

1. Just do it

It may seem daunting but I strongly recommend saying “yes” if you are ever asked to host a panel. If you are earlier in your career and not being asked directly, then look out for chances to volunteer to sit on a panel. If you are considering running your own event then being the host gives you a lot more control over your guests. Whoever you are and whatever stage in your career, appearing on a panel is great for your professional profile.

2. Three Golden Rules

You know the phrase “like herding cats”?  Running a live panel discussion at a conference or a live webinar can feel like that. With even the best behaved guests you’ll be working hard to keep all your plates spinning in the air. 

But being the host on a panel is not as hard as you may fear. These are my three golden rules that are the foundations of running a great panel: 

  1. Be thoroughly prepared
  2. Having excellent guests and make them the stars
  3. Enjoy it

The tips below will help you build these foundations. You can use these to check you are prepared and ready for what may happen on the day.

3. Your guests

You may not always be able to choose the guests on your panel. You can help your guests keep the audience interested. I talk to all of my guests individually and I want to find out the one most important thing that is on their mind just now. You can almost always incorporate that into your discussion. If you are able to choose your guests, then find the people with a personal perspective and stories to tell that illustrate the theme of the panel. Seniority and experience can help, but youth and diversity will keep it fresh and make it memorable. More on that later.

4. You are the actor in your own show

Even the best panel hosts are usually acting when on stage. You need to too. That’s not as hard as it might seem. You are going to be acting the best version of yourself. I really started enjoying moderating panels when I realised that I get my energy from the audience and my guests. I suspect that is true for most people too. Remember how you are with your friends and the people that make you feel special? What you are like when you are relaxed and don’t worry too much about saying the wrong thing?  

That’s who you want to be on stage. And the simplest way to do that is to smile. The audience is your friend and usually wants you to be successful.

Running a live event can be exhilarating. It’s quite normal to worry that something is going to go wrong which you can’t control.  None of us want to look stupid. But sometimes things do go wrong. The internet goes down and you drop off your webinar. An unexpected fire alarm goes off during your live event and no one knows how to turn it off. One of your panellists doesn’t turn up. People don’t give the answers you’d expected. You don’t understand what someone says in reply to a question. 

Reality TV shows are popular because they don’t follow an explicit script. Audiences want to be surprised. Discussions that run to a script with obviously pre-prepared answers are dull for everyone.  If your event is professionally run but something unexpected happens whilst you are moderating your panel your audience is likely to be forgiving. Indeed, it’s how we react to those mistakes and our ability to stay calm and see the humour in a problem that can often be what people remember from an event. 

All panels should educate, but to keep people interested we need to entertain too.

5. Agree some questions and topics before the event

Every panel will have a theme or title. You need to respect your audience by keeping loosely to that topic, but you will get the best from your guests if they are talking about something they are passionate about. When I prepare with my guests it’s usually by video and it’s easy to write up my notes as we talk. From that I’ll prepare a short list of questions or topics and I’ll send that to the guests. In this way I get to know each person’s point of view but I keep the discussion between panellists fresh for the event itself. Having an agreed set of questions is a good idea if you are new to running a panel but with experience you will be comfortable working with looser and fewer questions and allowing a natural discussions to evolve.

6. What will your audience remember?

As a host, you represent your audience. If you don’t understand what your panel is saying, or you get bored then your audience will too. When I prepare before an event, and then during the event, I am asking myself “what can the audience take away from this discussion?” Don’t be too ambitious in the range and depth of topics. One or two key points is enough to make the difference between a memorable panel discussion and one that is lost in the blur of our daily lives. Recently I’ve gotten even more specific in identifying what the audience should remember. I often now ask my panellists directly during our live discussion questions such as “what advice do you have for…” or “what gift do you have for our audience to take away”.

7. Look for stories and facts

People remember stories that illustrate a point. Facts help reinforce a point of view and make the speaker seem informed. When briefing your guests encourage them to talk about examples from their experience. Spell out acronyms. Ask them to avoid jargon. And please don’t use the word “stakeholders”.

8. Keep the introductions short

If you are feeling confident about your knowledge of your guest’s names, titles and companies it can be more powerful, and quicker, to introduce them yourself. It’s also better to memorise these than read them from your notes. But doing this can be one more thing to worry about on the day. Sometimes I introduce people, at other times I ask them to introduce themselves briefly. If you do ask for introductions, you need to manage the risk of getting lengthy career histories from your guests. Ask the person you think is likely to give the shortest answer to go first. Whoever goes first usually sets the standard for the rest.

9. Listen to the answers and follow the thread of the conversation

Listening to your guests may sound obvious, but inexperienced or nervous hosts can get fixed on their prepared questions and miss out on the benefits of a more conversational style of discussion. I usually warn my guest that my list of questions or topics to discuss that I share are a direction of travel, not a script. 

Most guests should be comfortable if you ask questions in a different order. If you get into the habit of listening carefully when your guests speak for something in the answer that you can refer back to as you ask your next question, that creates a much more natural conversation. Not all guests are given free rein on what they say though. Some have to respect the marketing police at HQ.

10. If you don’t understand, ask

If you don’t understand what one of your panellists says, it’s likely that some people in the audience will not either. It’s OK to ask for clarification. If you are moderating a topic you don’t know a lot about and are worried you may sound ignorant try this approach. Ask “can you expand on that point about…”. 

With a few exceptions, I always spell out acronyms and abbreviations or ask the guest to do so. There will be people in the audience who will thank you for that.

11. It’s OK to interrupt your panellist

Most guests know how to behave on stage. But some people can get passionate about the topic and go on for too long. I’ve had guests cover all the topics planned for the full discussion in one monologue barely pausing for breath.

When we listen we can usually only absorb a couple of points. If someone talks for too long or tries to cover too much at once you will lose your audience. You need to take back control. It’s hard the first time you interrupt someone on stage. My approach is to show the palm of my hand, fingers facing up. A softer version of the international “STOP” signal. I’ll use the panellist’s name and say something like “I’m going to stop you there and we’ll come back to the point later”. Do that once and your guests will usually answer in a more appropriate way after that.

12. Manage audience questions

Taking questions from the audience makes your panel more dynamic and demonstrates the knowledge of your panellists. They have to respond on the spot. Questions also engage the audience more directly. These days people are using polls such as Slido as an alternative to taking questions directly with a roving microphone. There are advantages and disadvantages of both. We often use a live poll near the beginning of the first panel session at our events. That sets the tone for the event. 

If you ask for questions from the floor at the end of your panel discussion, be prepared to wait for what can feel like an uncomfortably long pause, maybe 10 seconds before anyone responds. Don’t be tempted to give up before that. And if there are no questions, just close the session gracefully, don’t make a joke about it.

13. Learn from others

We can learn a lot from the moderators of TV panel discussions involving politicians. BBC Question Time for example.

14. Support diversity

In many industries panels are still too often made up of the same type of people. Insurance panels are frequently all male. We need to take diversity seriously. If you are a man and you are asked to be on a panel, or you are putting a panel together and it’s going to be all male, then that may be the time to decline or rethink your attendance.

15. Finally…

Some of the best discussions will be where your panellists have different views. If everyone is in violent agreement a panel is easier to run but it’s going to be boring for your audience. And for you.

With these tips and preparation you’ll be ready to keep those cats under control and your plates spinning. You won’t get it right all the time, but that’s how we learn. The chances are no one will notice. And you may even have a great time.

If you’re interested in how insurers are using technology or just want to see us in action at the live event and digital panels we run, you can find a great selection of discussions on our BrightTALK channel, on our website or better still, come along and see us live at a future event in London or New York.

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