Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

This spring I’ve had the privilege of taking part in several conferences.

Towards the end of one conference I heard heightened evidence of Panel Fatigue.

I can see why conferences rely on panel discussion — why people propose them, and why conference organizers select them:

  • Panels ask relatively little of the speakers (unlike other speaking or training sessions),
  • Several big names on a panel look great and attract participants, and
  • People like to hear from experts — the more the better.

Why Panel Fatigue?

After listening to a series of experts — and another series of experts — and another series of experts, the voices can blend together.

Panelists agree to agree

Especially when experts agree. Have you ever heard a panelist start a response by saying, “I agree with everything Kim said…” and then launch into a recap of what Kim said? What’s the point? It’s not the panelist’s fault — they want to pull their weight on the panel. They happen to agree with what someone else said. And though they are experts, they may not be expert panelists.

Audience members ask bad questions

Another point of fatigue is the questions from the audience — questions are an important part of a Q&A, right? But some questions are more fatiguing than others.

  • You know that one audience member who has a unique problem and keeps asking questions about it till the Q&A time runs out?
  • Or the audience member who posits a fascinating observation (er, not a question), but to make it a question, adds something like, “Did anyone on the panel ever experience anything like that?”
  • Or the one who just wants to deliver their elevator pitch to the whole room — a little misplaced personal branding?

How to prevent Panel Fatigue

So what’s the solution? Here are a few ideas:

1. Select diverse panelists — not just social positionality  (sex, ethnicity/race, age, sexual orientation, etc.) — but also perspective.

2. Coach panelists

  • Give panelists the questions ahead of time.
  • Encourage them to use stories to illustrate their responses. Telling stories about their experiences offers the audience memorable insight and can be much more meaningful and entertaining than simply bullet-like tips.
  •  Let panelists know to answer the question only if they have something new to say.

3. Empower your moderator.

Select a moderator who is firm but kind. Someone who can interrupt and redirect both panelists and audience members in a way that saves face for everyone and keeps the panel on schedule.

4. Except for initial introductions, direct the moderator to avoid calling on panelists by name to answer questions.

Instead of calling on each panelist by name, ask “Who would like to begin?” And after one or two good responses, ask, “Do other panelists have anything to add?”

If you call on panelists by name, or have panelists answer in the same order each time, it’s more awkward for a panelist to sit out a question if they have nothing to add.

5. Offer time for small group discussions at the end. After the Q&A, or instead of it, offer 20-60 minutes for panelists to lead small break-out groups. You could do two rounds, so audience members have a chance to chat with two panelists. Offer panelists questions to prompt the small group — but only use questions when they’re helpful.

Big questions for you

What are your panel discussion horror stories? What have you done to try to improve panel discussions you’ve organized?

Comments on: "Revisiting the panel discussion" (3)

  1. Brenda Williams said:

    I think you make a great point about having different perspectives, variety is needed and allows for lively discussions.

  2. Great information here, Amy. I agree that having different perspectives between panelists lends to more interesting discussion and less fatigue. Having a good moderator is imperative, as well as coaching the panelists beforehand. Letting them know it is okay to sit a question out if their answer is the same as others that have already spoken! Like you said, they might not be panel experts, so they might think they must comment every single time even with nothing new to add. Again, great information – thanks!

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