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How can panels and Q&A sessions become unquestionably better? The answer: With these 10 best practices

By Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster, No More Boring Meetings

While panels and Q&As can be memorable meeting elements, they’re usually sub-optimized and predictable, short on insights and long on length, unmoored and formulaic. Wouldn’t you rather offer engaging dialogs, energetic interplay, tangible takeaways, friendly arguments, authentic debate and purposeful experiences with a sum greater than the parts?

Your audiences would like that too.

So, without question, I recommend these 10 best practices.

FOR MORE POWERFUL PANELS:

1-Make sure everything about the panel—just like every element of your entire event—is designed and delivered from the audience’s point of view. While you will of course choose panelists because they have specific, valuable points of view, whatever the moderator asks and however panelists respond must be in service of the audience.

For example, this point of view is in service of the panelist: “When I was President of BigTechCo’s retail division, we showed our clients how to integrate Internet of Things technology into existing business models faster than any other firm.” This comment is in service of the audience: “IoT is constantly evolving. The most important step you can take is to use a secure framework for building your sales plan. Here is the URL for a whitepaper on that…”

2-Be brilliant in and be brilliant out: A great panel-based conversation starts with carefully crafted questions. Be sure whoever leads the way on this piece has a broad view of the issues your audience cares about, so the resulting banter fully hits the mark. This moderator should also ensure that no one on the panel dominates and everyone keeps their responses pithy, relevant and audience-centric.

3-Provide a panel within a panel: Just because you have a moderator and panelists on stage, doesn’t mean you can’t include those who are off stage. Involve your audience in a panel by asking for their questions in advance or in real time, and/or breaking up panelists’ input by giving the audience at least one opportunity to discuss a question among themselves, 1:1 or in small groups (a panel within a panel!).

FOR HIGHER QUALITY Q&A SESSIONS:

4-Lay the groundwork. First, prepare presenters by letting them know you will be staging “Best Practice Q&A” and as such, you don’t want to end the entire program with Q&A. Instead, ask them—in advance of the event so they can thoughtfully prepare—to close with a final, short and relevant point, anecdote or big-picture insight. Think of it as a content sandwich: Main program, Q&A, short closing segment.

This three-part package unites all the remarks in a memorable, positive way. If you end with Q&A, you have no control over how your events end, how attendees depart, or the last emotions and thoughts you leave with audiences. After all, what if the final question sucks the air right out of the room? Is confrontational? Drones on and on? Instead, allow your speakers and panelists to orchestrate the close, and enjoy positive conclusions to events you work so hard to design.

5-Run with it: Prepare to have mic runners in the aisles who deliver cordless mic(s) to those wishing to ask questions. Or have a couple mics on stands at the front of the room.

6-Prepare your audience: Ask your presenter to say something like this—and note that each component is integral to your success: “That concludes my main remarks. As you know, we’ve included a short Q&A in this session. It will last 15 minutes. I’ll then close with some final remarks. So that we can maximize our time together, please keep your question short, and in the form of a question, so that we can address as many questions as possible with the time allotted. Also…please 1. Raise your hand 2. Wait for a mic to come to you And 3. State your question. Who wishes to go first?”

7-Use a proven answer protocol: Whether the question was amplified or not, be sure the presenter repeats or summarizes each question for the benefit of all. Those who don’t hear the question certainly won’t be engaged in the answer. Then have presenters share short, relevant answers to address each question while generating as much participation (and as little boredom) as possible.

8-Plant a plant: If you think questions will be minimal, or politically charged, appoint someone in the audience to ask the first question. Yes folks: a plant. This is your “safety net” who delivers a thoughtful, pre-selected question that sets a positive tone for the rest of the Q&A.

9-Employ a crucial, strategic close: When there’s time for one more question, ask the speaker to inform participants so they know what to expect. And if the speaker is willing, and it’s clear that questions still remain, announce he or she will linger to take questions 1:1 after the program is over.

10-End on a high note: Then, the speaker presents his/her short, pre-selected closing vignette to wrap up the program and bridge all the remarks.

Voilà: You’ve stayed on track, maintained crucial levels of engagement and given your audience new insights.

For more on producing best-in-class panel discussions, check out the book Powerful Panels by Kristin Arnold. And to explore more ways to stage rave-worthy question-and-answer-type sessions beyond the predictable, read my book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Event Planning: For Kick-Ass Gatherings that Inspire People.

Andrea Driessen is chief boredom buster for No More Boring Meetings in Seattle. An international award-winning business owner and author of the twice-international  award-winning book The Non-Obvious Guide to Event Planning: For Kick-Ass Gatherings that Inspire People (2019), Andrea teams up with organizations including Starbucks, Microsoft, The Boeing Company, Habitat for Humanity, Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, and hundreds more. Visit www.NoMoreBoringMeetings.com and follow her on Twitter at @nomoreboring.

 Photo copyright Cabinet Office via flickr