How to Lead a Great Panel

Hard-earned lessons in making conference panels suck less.

Hey community builders,

A bit of a tangential topic for you all today…

I’ve conducted hundreds of public interviews in my career, and many of them have been in the format everyone loves to hate: the panel.

Well we have a few panels at CMX Summit (y’all should join, it’s virtual, free, and kicked off tomorrow!) One of our panel moderators asked me for my advice on how to run a great panel. Thought I’d share with you what I wrote to them, in case you might find it helpful too.

Here we go…

  1. Follow your own curiosity: It makes it much more interesting if you’re genuinely asking questions that you care about the answer to vs. just asking what’s written down. Design questions around your own curiosity. If you’re curious about it, then there will definitely be people in the audience who are curious too.

  2. Follow up: The magic is often found in the follow-up questions. If you hear someone say something that seems interesting, or could be interesting but they’re being vague about it, then make them dig deeper. The more specific you can get them to be, the better. Let’s play out an example…

  • Them: “we plan out our community content for the year”

  • You: “that’s really interesting, could you share more about what that community plan looks like?”

  • Them: “yeah we just map out month by month what the themes are and then come up with specific content that fits in that theme”

  • You: “interesting! where does that plan live? Is it in a document somewhere?”

  • Them: “we put it all into our project management tool asana, which makes it easy to assign tasks and keep everything in one place

You went from a generally unhelpful insight of “we plan out our content for the year” into something very specific and actionable. I always try to pull something out that the listener/attendee can put into action that very day.

  1. Dont do self-introductions: In a panel, they take way too long and it’s boring content. Instead, you have three options:

    1. Have the emcee intro everyone for you

    2. You introduce the panelists for them

    3. Work their bios into the conversation

      I like #3 the best because you get to work their story and experience into the conversation. So you’d say something like, “Jane, you’ve been building robots for 20 years at Boston Robotics and Google… what is your biggest fear about the future of robotics?”

  2. Be yourself: which can be generally confusing advice. Who am I anyway? But what I take this to mean when speaking/interviewing is if I feel like I’m performing for people, then I’m probably not being myself. I try to talk to the panelists like I would a good friend who I’ve known for a long time. I make jokes as if we’re sitting at a cafe just talking to each other. Don’t perform. Just be.

  3. You don’t have to ask each question to all three people: A lot of panels do this format where every question is answered by all panelists. But it takes a long time and you miss an opportunity to ask more specific questions. So think about having both: a couple questions that all three can answer and some that are specifically designed for each person.

  4. Interrupt: Not too much, but not too little. If a panelist is rambling on, interrupt and say something positive like “you said something really interesting there and I wanted to get Jane’s take on it too” then have Jane take it. Or if you hear something interesting that you want them to go deeper on before moving to their next thought, interrupt them before they transition. Interrupting isn’t rude, it’s good moderation.

  5. End on something visionary/inspiring: I like to ask for predictions of the future, or to condense all of their lessons into one piece of advice to others. Something that ends on a positive, thought-provoking note.

Hope that helps you prep for the next time you host a panel or do an interview.

And I hope you’ll all join us at CMX Summit over the next few days. We have…

  • Over 90 presenters over three days

  • 60+ talks, workshops, and networking events

  • Keyotes from Seth Godin and Sahil Lavingia

  • Some fun stuff like learning how to raise chickens, a DJ, and drag queen bingo

  • We’re giving away a bunch of copies of The Business of Belonging

Grab your tickets here!

Otherwise, hope to write to you all soon. I’m starting to get the itch to write again after feeling pretty burned out by it after writing the book. And I’m hoping this newsletter will become a nice personal outlet where I can talk directly to ya in a less formal format.

-David