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7 Tips for Leading Zoom Panel Discussions

Originally published in 2021 on Mandel Communications blog

In today’s world, most everything is virtual—including panel discussions.

In addition to all of the usual considerations for a panel discussion, the virtual aspect adds complexities. Ignore them and risk a discussion that falls flat and disappoints your audience.

The good news? With just a little extra effort, you can plan and deliver rich and engaging virtual panel discussions that stand out from the pack. Here’s how:

1. Analyze your audience

Knowing what your audience cares about is critical to crafting a powerful, resonant discussion. Audience analysis is particularly critical when your panel is virtual and it’s harder to read whether your audience is engaged and interested. Researching your audience ahead of time is even more essential.

  • Why would they register for your panel discussion? What is in it for them?
  • What do they need from you? What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What is their level of knowledge on the subject? How deep do you need to be able to go?
  • Are they international?
  • What time will it be for them?
  • Is English a second language for anyone?

2. Brainstorm questions

Use sticky notes to generate lots of possible questions aligned with your audience’s “care-abouts.” At this stage, no idea is a bad idea. Let your mind run free. Capture lots of possibilities. Then start grouping them. Organize them into themes, pare them down, and prioritize them. Plan more questions than you have time to ask, so you can link thoughtfully to insights that have been shared with a robust question that builds on that idea.
Be willing to ask far fewer questions than you expected, so there’s plenty of time for your panel to shine and for the audience to engage with questions of their own.

3. Meet with your panel ahead of time

Tee up your panelists, and yourself, for success. Schedule a planning call to introduce all of your panelists to one another. Talk to them about your vision and share the questions you have drafted. Let them know how much time you have per allotted person total during the discussion. Encourage each to prioritize questions that they would love to answer from their hearts (not a script). Invite them to help you fine-tune questions to prompt the most important responses. Look for connections between panelists that could spark moments of planned “spontaneous interaction.”

4. Introduce your panel yourself

DON’T ask them to introduce themselves. When you make introductions, you can keep the information shared consistent and brief—e.g., name, title, company, and unique reason why each was chosen—so you don’t usurp valuable time from the discussion. More importantly, you can highlight accomplishments that some may be too humble to share.
When your panelists do speak for the first time, they won’t be seen as bragging about their awesomeness. Rather, they will be leaning into what matters most to the audience: adding value and insight.

5. Skip the slide of panelist headshots

While you should include headshots of your panelists in your invitation, it is not necessary to populate the standard opening slide with the same photos. Most of us haven’t had a headshot taken since before the pandemic. It can be jarring to see a set of professional headshots of panelists whose hair is significantly longer, shorter, or a different color than that of the people who are speaking live on your panel. The difference between the photos and reality can subliminally deter from the credibility of the speaker and your event.

Instead, provide each panelist with a background to use during the discussion that includes their credentials. This lets you focus on their real faces and personalities during the introductions, not dated photographs. Example:

6. Own the flow of the questions

Ask your opening question of only one panelist. Build on that person’s response by linking something they said to the next question. When you do, the questions flow organically from one to the next—without feeling repetitious or abrupt. This is where the insights gleaned during your thoughtful planning and prep call come into play. The one time to ask everyone the same question is a “speed round” as you wrap the conversation.
This allows each of your panelists to add final thoughts and challenge the crowd with their own closing action requests.

7. Know how to control your technology

You can nail all of the above, but if you don’t know how to use your presentation technology, you’re in trouble. The solution is simple: practice. Make sure you know the technology inside and out. Be sure you know how to mute/unmute yourself (and other attendees, if you have that function), how to use annotation tools and chat, and how you show up in the camera’s frame.

Delivering first-rate virtual panel discussions is a skill that can be learned and refined with training and practice. The tips above are a start. If you want to deepen your mastery, let’s communicate! Click here to be contacted by a Mandel Communications expert for a free consultation.