I’ve put together and facilitated quite a few panel discussions over the years, including many panels of women in STEM for SCWIST’s Wonder Women evening. I’ve also been on a number of panels, often about careers in Physics. This spring, I facilitated the Powerful STEAM Collaboration, Crossing fields, sectors and culture panel at the STAN 2018 Annual conference.
The tips you’ll find in the following paragraphs are mostly things I’ve learned by having to improvise around the results of my inexperience. To be clear from the outset, the kind of panel I’m describing is “multiple perspectives on a topic”, and not a pro/con debate, which requires a whole different set of moderation skills.
For example, let’s suppose you’ve been asked to assemble a panel for a gathering of educators, on the topic of “how teachers can collaborate with scientists”. There are several programs that facilitate this kind of collaboration; the conference organizers want the delegates to hear from teachers about their experiences.
For an hour-long session, you’ll need about four panelists. The first requirement is that the panelists are well-qualified to address the topic in a meaningful way. Your audience expects to learn something non-trivial. For the example panel mentioned above, you would seek out teachers who have worked in collaboration with scientists for a full school year.
Invite panelists with a diversity of perspectives. You must absolutely consider age, ethnicity, and gender. Also look for panelists with different approaches to the topic. For your imaginary panel of teachers, you’d include participants from different collaboration programs. To show both the benefits and the challenges, you might try to find one for whom the collaboration was a runaway success, one or two for whom it worked decently well, and one who had to struggle to make it work.
Personally, I really like to have at least one person on the panel that I know well enough to anticipate their answers and approach – but that’s not always possible.
Make sure you have names, titles, and any biographical information you’re using to introduce your panelists, and make sure you can pronounce everything correctly. Don’t assume you’ll remember - make notes and keep them with you (harsh experience speaking here)!
Topical open-ended questions
This is not the time to channel your inner investigative reporter. Your job is to prompt the panelists to share their experiences and insights, and to make them feel comfortable doing so.
To build your list of questions, start general: “What appealed to you about working with a scientist?”. Then move into more specific questions like “How do you integrate the scientist visits into your classroom routine?” Avoid yes/no questions, to better leave the door open to a good story.
I’ve often found it useful to have a really practical question as a closer, something like “What advice would you give a teacher who wants to start a collaboration?”
Clarity of purpose
Let the panelists know who else will be on the panel. Tell them why you chose the panelists you did and what you hope they’ll contribute. (For our teacher panel, perhaps you chose Harpreet for the elementary teacher perspective, Samsara to represent the views of high school teachers, Winston to show how these partnerships work in an alternative school, and Joe particularly to highlight how the program helps a new teacher develop curriculum.) Perhaps even introduce the panelists to each other ahead of time. A perk of being on a panel is meeting new people with similar interests!
Give the panelists your list of questions, and if there are particular things you’d like them to address, let them know! “Winston, I’m going to ask you about long-term projects – please tell the story of the worm composter.”
Be clear about time constraints. It would be useful to agree with the panel on a signal for “we need to move on” in case time is running short.
When you want everyone to weigh in on a topic, you may need to reframe the questions to help panelists numbers 2, 3, and 4 (who may have lost track of the original question). “Harpreet found that having the scientist visit every Wednesday kept the partnership on track. What kind of schedule worked well for high school students, Samsara?”
If a panelist has a great point, but it’s not quite an answer to the question, just go with it. If Winston wants to respond to “what’s your greatest challenge?” by describing how a problem student really connected with the scientist, that’s still valuable to the audience, so don’t shut it down.
Take notes and reflect back what you’ve heard after each question. “I’m struck by the variety of ways that teachers collaborate with scientists – from weekly visits to borrowing equipment”; “It seems like setting up a communication system is key to working on lesson plans together, whether that’s a daily meeting, a shared Google drive, or a log book.”
Leave time for audience questions. If the audience asks something that the panelists can’t address, consider inviting audience members with expertise to identify themselves, and either answer the question or follow up for discussion later.
Lots of Thanks
End your panel discussion by thanking each panelist individually and sincerely for their contribution. If you have thank-you gifts, hand them out publicly.
Thank the audience for their attention and participation. Your well-chosen and smoothly-run panel will have given them new insights into the topic – and hopefully you’ll have learned something new, too.