(Or, No More Boring Panels, Please!)


We’re awash in a sea of events.  There are more than half-a-million Meetups listed on Meetup.com every month. Eventbrite offered tickets to more than 2 million events last year. In 2015, there were 47 million public event listings created on Facebook.  There are more than 92,000 professional organizations in the US, many holding monthly events.

Many of these events are speaker or panel-driven. In many conferences, a group of experts sits onstage and discusses a given topic for an hour (or more), answers a few questions from the audience and is replaced by another panel, on another topic, who repeat the process.

The panel is the beloved refuge of event managers and speakers alike. Choose a group of industry experts and throw them onstage with a moderator and you are good to go. Rarely is there more than minimal preparation – a pre-panel conference call where the panelists agree on a format and toss around a few questions is often the extent of it.

Meanwhile, panels can also be a way to hear many voices and perspectives in an efficient manner. They offer more speakers a way to get onstage, get experience speaking and tell their story, making valuable connections with other influencers and experts, both onstage and in the audience. Panels also offer a way to hear ideas discussed.

What can you do to liven up your event? We’ve gathered up ideas for you, separated them into categories and created this guide with many options and alternatives to panels. It’s designed to offer inspiration for event managers, event coordinators, moderators and panelists who are tired of the same old format.

This guide includes:

  • Basic panel formats
  • Moderator options
  • Options for questions and comments
  • Ways to break up a panel
  • Panel housekeeping tips
  • Notes on panel size
  • Creative options for panelists
  • Different panel options
  • Panel alternatives
  • Individual presenters
  • Options for two or more presenters

Let’s start with the panel itself. Here’s a list of mix and match options for panels.

Basic panel format options:

  • The Classic – Panel with moderator.
  • The Unruly Classic – Panel without moderator
  • The Roundtable – a panel with even less structure. Usually more interaction between the participants than the traditional panel.
  • Debate, face-off or point/counterpoint – split the panel into opposing camps to argue different points of view.
  • Co-presenters – actually more of a presentation but with two or more speakers.

What are the options for your moderator?

  • Seated or standing at a podium, on the stage with the panelists
  • Oprah-style (or Phil Donahue if you were a 70s TV-watcher) – where the moderator roams the room with a mic to solicit comments and feedback from the audience.
  • Moderator as a panelist – sometimes a moderator can also provide input and be a panelist
  • Levels of control vary – some moderators will actively control a panel, cutting off panelists if they go too long, letting someone finish if they are interrupted and others let things roll. You can even have an absent moderator who sets up the panel, manages the pre-event call and planning, and then doesn’t (by accident or design) appear onstage.

Panel Add-ons/ Questions/ Audience Comments: The basic panel is a moderator and a row of talking heads.  Most will take questions or comments from the audience (either during the panel or at the end.)  There are a number of options you can use.

  • Pre-panel – whether during the registration process or by soliciting questions in the room before the panel starts, you can get questions from your audience before the panel begins. You can ask people on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Some conferences and events use apps that allow you to ask the audience what questions they would like answered. Or, to get a little more creative, pass a basket with index cards through the audience and ask them for questions. Perhaps a fishbowl at the entrance to collect questions and the moderator can randomly draw questions.
  • As you kick-off – it’s not uncommon to informally survey an audience at the beginning of a panel. “Who here is an entrepreneur?” “Who wants to become one?” Learn a little about the makeup of your audience to help drive your panel’s focus. And yes, ask for questions up-front, “What do you want to learn today?”
  • Mid-panel – You can stop the panel part-way through and ask the audience for questions (check-in), or, allow audience members to break in during the discussion. Monitoring social media for questions will usually require assistance or a large screen set up to monitor the social media stream.
  • After the panel concludes the majority of its talk, the most common format is to have the moderator ask the audience for questions. (Helpful hint: you may need to “plant” questions in the audience to get the ball rolling. You accomplish this by asking someone before the session starts if they could ask a question and possibly discussing that question with them.) You can also ask guests to tell you why they are “here” before the panel starts. If they have a question they are looking for the answer to, it’s great to suggest they ask it during the question period. As a moderator, it’s always good to have a few extra questions in your back pocket in case your audience is shy.
  • Another option is to bill an entire panel session as a Q&A – the audience comes in expecting to provide the questions.
  • Just for fun questions: Plan to ask a question “just for fun” (better to warn the panelists). A JFF question could take the form of “Two truths and a lie” or “tell us about your outside-of-work passion” or the ever-popular “Tell us something most people don’t know about you.” These questions help warm up both the panel and the audience, and often inject some humor into the panel. (Ed. note: HUMOR IS OFTEN IMPORTANT TO LIVELY PANELS.)
  • Attendees write a question or topic on a piece of paper along with their name and place it in a bowl. Once all the questions are collected the panelists randomly select a question, and the person who wrote it goes on stage to join the discussion. Time each topic and move on to another after a specific period.

Ways to break up a panel.  Sometimes it is great to break up your panel. Whether it is a part 1 and a part 2 with different topics, or a dance break (David Gallant suggested a live DJ in between panels but a DJ could also “spin” between sections of a panel), you can split a panel up into pieces to keep your audience engaged over a longer period of time. Exercises, feedback, questions, or comments are great for this.

Lisa Sasso, an Innovation Women member and author, has an annual event for people looking to enter the medical device industry. She solicits “special guests” to come up front and add commentary during the panel discussion. Her process for managing this is simple.  She asks these guests to provide her with a description of their advice, and their name and title on an index card.  She collects the index cards and pulls them out to call upon the guests over the course of the event.

Networking exercises can also provide a good break.  “Greet your neighbors and introduce yourselves.”
Panel housekeeping: When you have your preparation call, take the time to run through some rules for the panel so everyone knows what to expect. These “rules” can often be a source of creativity.

  • If the audience has easy access to the speakers’ biographies and background, it won’t be necessary to use up conference time in deep introductions. Name, title, organization and a quick intro should suffice.
  • Bypass the biography with creative introductions:
    • Two truths & a lie
    • 140 character introduction
    • Skip bios and have everyone provide a prediction
  • How long should opening remarks be? Closing remarks?
  • Is there a time limit on answers and how should the speaker get signaled when their time is up?
  • Are there any topics off-limits?
  • “Selling from the stage.” While we all know that speaking engagements are important marketing opportunities, the audience is there for knowledge, not to hear a sales pitch. State this upfront…just in case.
  • Are there specific roles to be played by each panelist?
  • Will there be slides while the group or individuals are talking? These can be as simple as a single slide with the names, photos and company names of each panelist. (Add Twitter handles for increased social media interaction.)
  • How to avoid “What s/he said” where everyone agrees…and is boring about it. Stealing a page from the House of Genius book, create a device to allow panelists to agree quickly and easily.  (House of Genius uses the shorthand “+1” to indicate agreement and allow the discussion to move on swiftly.)

Notes on panel size: According to Heather Myklegard on Busyconf.com, “The typical rule of thumb is between 5 and 6 panelists. Most likely someone will cancel last minute, so if you have at least 4 panelists, you are still safe and can have a productive and useful discussion.” Scott Kirsner, a Boston-area journalist and experienced panel moderator also mentions the “assumption” that someone will cancel. And, he looks at panel size from a panelist’s point of view. Once you get to six members of a panel, “everyone on the panel starts to get anxious about getting enough airtime.” Others call for panels of no more than 3 speakers (with a moderator) which, in an hour, allows time for introductions, 10 to 15 minutes from each speaker, and audience questions.

Different ideas for panelists – As you consider creative ideas for your panels, you might want to start with creative options for the panelists. We recently asked our network for suggestions.

  • How about kids? Or teens, or students? A young person’s perspective on the topic may be totally different than an adult’s. Add a “newbie” – have someone new to the topic, or a student on the panel to act as the “everyman moderator” or interviewer.
  • Innovation Women member Kim Miles suggested “Me! As an emcee to a game show format.”
  • Will Brierly created a character that was controlled by artificial intelligence that moderated a panel. He says, “It was definitely a wacky experience because none of us knew what he was going to say.”
  • How about a “virtual presence”? Have a remote panelist participate via Skype or phone. (Double check your tech first!)
  • Chris Allen suggested having “One panelist there to just read texts from the audience as they live-tweet from their seats.”

Here are some different options for panels:

  • There are many formats and options for so-called open panels, where audience members either are, or can join the panelists in the discussion by taking their place on an empty chair. Like a grownup version of musical chairs, the “guest” panelists stay until they are replaced by another audience member or there can be a timer set. We also heard about the “Open Fishbowl” option where four chairs are placed in the center of a room and only three can be occupied at any time.
  • Another set up, particularly conducive to roundtable discussions, is the double ring of chairs where only the inner ring speaks but the outer ring can “tap in” to join the discussion.
  • Games and gameshows make for great inspiration for creative panel formats – everything from Mad Libs to Cards Against Humanity (PG13 or R-rated) to classic TV gameshow “buzzer” races to answer specific questions.
  • Give each panelist a paddle with “like” and “dislike” sides and read a series of statements to get their reactions. (Or, use emojis or icons.)
  • Creative inspiration? How about poetry slams, rap battles, or questions in Haiku?
  • The Panel Breakdown – split both the panelists and the audience into an equal number of groups (4 panelists/4 groups) for smaller group conversations. Time the discussions and rotate the panelists so each one gets to talk to each group.
  • PowerPoint Karaoke or, conversely, prohibit slides
  • Panelists ask each other questions
  • Each panelist takes a portion of the topic and focuses their answers on that portion of the topic.
  • Add a surprise “mystery” panelist or “extra” moderator to enliven the conversation.

Alternatives to panels: The best events offer information through a combination of different types of presentations.  You can offer workshops, fireside chats, interviews, “lightning talks”, demonstrations, cohort or “Birds of a feather” discussions, Q&A, classes, panel discussions, round tables and participatory exercises.

Individual presentations: There are many, many different options for individual speakers and presenters. Here are just a few

  • Traditional conference presentation: a speaker with slides
  • Perhaps a better option? (Showing our bias.) A speaker without slides
  • Demonstration
  • PechaKucha (Japanese for chit-chat) is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total). The format keeps presentations concise and fast-paced.
  • The Ignite format – each speaker gets 5 minutes, and must use 20 slides with each slide advancing automatically after 15 seconds.
  • Problem solving workshop where the presenter leads a brainstorming session
  • Ted Talk

Other options for two or more presenters:

  • Workshop
  • Collaborative problem solving (pose questions to audience and breakout to solve problems)
  • Fireside chat/interview
  • “Conversation” where two presenters ask each other questions and the audience listens in.
  • The translator game where one presenter presents in industry jargon and the other “translates” for a more general audience.

Not every option will work for every subject, or with every speaker.  (Ed. Note: Please don’t ask me to rap, or sing.) And this list is far from complete.  Feel free to add your suggestions and share interesting options you’ve seen.

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P.S. As we were gathering ideas from our network, one person responded to our query for creative panel alternatives with the sarcastic, “Six white middle-aged men from Connecticut talking about themselves.” Yes, in the end, the best panels tend to have diverse makeup and perspective. Make your panel presentations awesome…and diverse.

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