(Manels) and nine other things to avoid with industry panels

In a photo widely shared on social media, six suited men addressed an audience at Cop27. Morals aside, you might be forgiven had it been 1952 (in fact no one would have batted an eyelid, let’s face it) but in 2023 it’s unforgivable. Panels can be triumphant talking points of events. Some of the best sessions I’ve seen have been lively, well-moderated, thoughtful panel debates. But, they can also be epic fails.

Charlotte Williams

Here are some things to avoid when curating or moderating a panel:


Diversity is inter-sectional and complex. People who look the same, have the same beliefs, same backgrounds, same taste etc. do not make for interesting and lively debate. The best panels always have a little bit of kickass conflict. Adam Grant calls this “optimal distinctiveness”.

More than four people (plus moderator).

In my opinion, three plus moderator is the ideal number - unless it’s an actual 2x2 debate. Any more than that then it’s a waste of good talent and no one gets to talk enough.

A “too congenial” moderator.

The role of the moderator is like that of a conductor: to get the very best out of the participants, to keep the beat and to delight the audience. They don’t have to ask the same question to every panellist (boring) or let people talk for as long as they want. I once watched a panel in Turkey where (no joke) one panellist talked for 20 minutes straight out of a 45 minute panel. The moderator froze, did nothing and people slowly and painfully left the auditorium.

Long, tedious introductions.

The moderator should spend 30 seconds max on an intro for each person and preferably make it interesting. A fun fact, a career high and low, a particular view of the topic. Never, ever let people introduce themselves. Someone will always bang on for way too long

Dry, rehearsed responses.

Panels should encourage stories and a degree of spontaneity and this is the role of the moderator to tease out. Examples, real-life stories, anecdotes bring colour to opinions and debate.

Alienating the audience.

Panels can feel exclusive; like there’s an invisible wall between the audience and speakers on stage. There are tools and technologies that make for more audience interaction (Crowd Mics, Glisser, Sli.do) and I’m a big fan of voting too, where there’s a “yes or no” debate to be had. Again it’s mainly the moderator’s role to involve the audience: get them asking questions at the beginning, taking a vote midway, voting again at the end. Have the panellists changed the audience’s perception on a given topic? 

Boring, obvious questions.

Get really granular,  slightly provocative, punchy questions prepared. We don’t want to make people feel (too) uncomfortable but we do want to get specific and hold people to account. Don’t play it safe. Silence means they’re thinking of a response, so sit with it until you get people’s best response. 

Brushing over people’s comments and ignore salient points.

In counselling training, one of the most useful techniques is reflecting and paraphrasing. Broadcast journalists are good at this, as are people who are professionally trained in public speaking and moderating. Make sure that everyone is properly heard and that everyone has

Rocking up unprepared.

Panels get a bad rep because often participants think they don’t need to prepare (and therefore don’t). I’ve seen so many panellists turn up backstage without any notes, meeting their fellow panellists for the first time on the day of the event. It makes for shallow and messy sessions, when they could be SO good. As your teacher said, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.

Get all of this RIGHT, and you're onto a winning content piece that could be a long-term talking point for attendees.

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