Preparing for a panel discussion – spare me your furious agreement

by Peter Kelly

The panel discussion is a regular format for conferences and business lunches but too rarely do they rise above soft questions, furious agreement and shameless self-promotion. It takes some planning and preparation for them to be done well.

These days, diversity is top of mind. Does the panel have a balance of men and women, old and young? A different sort of diversity is also critical…diversity of thought.

In my previous world of television, panel discussions are carefully curated and sometimes rehearsed. Participants will take opposing positions, just to create some lively conversation.

By accepting to be a moderator or panellist, you are accepting responsibility to help create a thought provoking, entertaining session for the audience. Here are some tips to deliver on that responsibility.


  1. Contact the moderator/other panellists ahead of the event to discuss key themes and issues that might be explored. Find out what others are saying and build a game plan.
  2. Think about your audience. Who in the audience do you want to influence?
  3. Plan to disagree. Find some common ground but also some differences. Just tell the other panellists that you plan to disagree as a courtesy. The debate can be the most valuable part of the session.
  4. Provide a clear insight…be bold and have something to say. Prepare a key message to underpin your performance.
  5. Bring some evidence, not just an opinion – an anecdote or a single statistic can help a lot. Often other panellists will riff off that insight.
  6. Respond to another panellists. Don’t just sit there waiting for the next question – it takes the pressure of the moderator.


  1. Don’t read a long CV but do tell us the panellists expertise/why they have been chosen.
  2. Never, ever ask questions of panellists one at a time, in order of seating. It’s the clearest possible demonstration that you are not having a real discussion.
  3. Politely interrupt someone – then it is more like a genuine conversation, not an over-rehearsed Q and A session.
  4. Ask a follow up question. Listen to the panellists and respond, don’t just read your next question. As a journalist, my favourite follow-up question was just one word: “why?”
  5. Don’t fawn over your panellists. Be prepared to ask a question in a provocative way. This is a time for spirited, entertaining conversation, not overly polite small talk.
  6. Plant a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ or two from the floor to increase audience participation.
  7. It’s your job to sum up – what have we decided, what needs to be done, what conclusions can be drawn?

The aim is to respect your audience and to be intelligent, articulate and thought-provoking. Most of us need to prepare properly if we are to pull that off!

Three Plus can help you successfully develop, deliver and lead a thought provoking, entertaining and engaging panel discussion at your next corporate or media event. Contact us today for more information.

Three Plus Principal Consultant, Georgina Robinson chairing the discussion panel at QSport’s inaugural Women in Sport Breakfast (October 2023).