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How to Host an Effective Virtual Event Panel

Updated

Plan a panel discussion that pleases guests and shows off the best of your brand.

Panel discussions are the highlight of any virtual event - and it's easy to see why. With multiple experts sharing their perspectives and answering attendee questions, panels are one of the easiest ways to produce excellent content at your virtual event.

But between picking speakers and moderators, coordinating schedules, picking the right technology, and oh right, doing it all remotely, virtual panel discussions can overwhelm even the most seasoned event planners.

Plan a panel discussion that pleases your guests and spotlights the best of your brand, using our best practices: 

1. Research your topic well

Imagine a webinar with industry-leading speakers, compelling marketing and good visuals. Sounds interesting… until you realize it’s about how the iPod shuffle is going to revolutionize the way people listen to music. You’d grab your iPhone and go home, even if Tim Cook himself were on the panel. 

If your presentation isn’t grounded in current events and/or customer pain points, it won’t appeal to anyone. If you can’t teach people something that they’ll use to improve their lives right now, forget it. Topics should be: 

Relevant: Your topic doesn’t need to be “ripped from the headlines,” Law and Order style. But it does need to be timely. It needs to address the most pressing shifts in your industry - and empower your audience to respond to them. 

Say your audience is full of hospitality marketers. Right now, in August 2021, they’re probably going to be most concerned about adapting their marketing and customer communications strategy to the COVID situation. If your content tells them how to respond to these developments, it’ll be way more useful - and popular - than just another webinar on branding. 

Educational + actionable: Presentations are most memorable and effective when audience members can walk away with a game plan. If they can apply your teachings to make their lives easier, they’ll view you as a trusted resource and come back for more. So ensure that your discussions aren’t just theoretical - but also give audiences advice they can use. 

Grounded in customer needs: If your topic is timely, educational and actionable, it’s likely to please your audience. That said, do your due diligence to confirm you’re giving your customers what they need from you. 

Use market research, surveys and customer questions/complaints to choose your topic. This makes it more likely you’ll choose something that pleases your audience, not just your CMO. 

If your prospects and customers share confusion about a certain topic, consider discussing it during your next webinar so you can educate your base while also creating actionable content. 

2. Recruit presenters

Your presenters will be the personality and (literal) voice of your discussion. So once you’ve finalized your topic, research presenters that can speak intelligently to relevant subtopics under that umbrella. This way, you can cover more ground, answer more questions, and provide a broader range of perspectives. 

Your speakers will be the biggest draw of your event, so shoot for the stars and have some backup selections ready. With so many “thought leaders” and “gurus” on your LinkedIn feed, it can be hard to identify the right speakers for your discussion (and figure who’s full of hot air.) Pick presenters who are:   

Experts: Ensure the panelists understand the purpose of the event and what you’re trying to achieve through it. Use LinkedIn groups, Twitter or your personal network to find speakers that are thought leaders in your industry. This brings credibility to your panel and value to attendees. 

PS: Think of speakers as partners - the more followers they have, the more attendees they can bring to your event. (Note: Once you've selected your speakers, provide each one with a media kit including sample social media graphics and copy, so they can easily promote your event to their followers, while sticking to the event's branding.) 

Diverse: While all your speakers should be subject-matter experts, they should bring different perspectives, focuses and experiences to the table (Not to mention: They shouldn’t all be white dudes aged 50+).  

Because if your guests are all copy-pastes of one another, they won’t have a well-rounded discussion or introduce any new insights to guests. And female, minority and/or LBGTQ+ guests may feel that their perspectives aren't being shared. So look for panelists that are credible, passionate and open to new perspectives - even if it’s not who you expected. Need help creating a diverse speaker panel? Follow our best practices here.

 

If you think you can't find women to participate on your panel, think again. Melanie Ehrenkranz put out a call for female tech speakers on Twitter and got 1,000 names in 24 hours.

 

Conversational and graceful: Public panel discussions tend to be self-selecting: Those who will clam up onscreen tend not to express interest in participating. But if you’re evaluating speakers solely by their resumes, there’s a chance you could select presenters that don’t contribute equally to the conversation.  

So ensure that your speakers are eloquent and outgoing by researching their past speaking engagements or interviewing them.

And it should go without saying, but your speakers shouldn’t be jerks. There’s no surefire way to jerk-proof your panel, but as you’re recruiting panelists, learn what they’re expecting from the event. Also, convey your expectations on conduct to ensure alignment and a smooth, civil discussion for all involved. 

3. Select a moderator

Presenters may be the stars of the show, but the moderator is the glue. They’re the ones who direct the flow of conversation, introduce speakers and put the conversation in context for audience members. So you need to find a moderator that can fit into the discussion without dominating it. Select one who can: 

Contextualize the conversation: Not everyone will enter the session with the same background knowledge. And presenters may not want to interrupt the flow of their speech to explain unfamiliar terms on the fly. In that case, the moderator needs to explain any jargon in terms a beginner/intermediate would understand. Think of the moderator as a bridge between the experts and audience - and choose someone with an appropriately simple and approachable style. 

Organize the discussion: The moderator needs to manage time during the session and ensure that all topics and speakers are covered. So you need to pick a moderator that imposes organization on the session and keeps the panelists on schedule. Also encourage moderators to call certain presenters by name if they seem to be shrinking into the background - or their unique perspective will improve the discussion. 

Be modest...: Since the moderator’s the voice of the session, it’s tempting to choose the one with the most charisma and energy. But if your moderator talks too long, they’ll draw attention from the speakers to themselves, at the attention of the session. So pick a moderator that employs active listening to get the best out of each panelist. 

...but provide some personality: You don’t want your moderator to steal the show, but you don’t want them to suck the life from it, either. Since they’re the one introducing the session, moderators need to start the discussion with some personality, whether through their energy levels or well-timed quips. 

Graceful: Finally, your moderator should be able to smoothly defuse moments like these: 


4. Map out an expected flow of conversation 

Seasoned moderators can come up with ad libbed segways and jokes in a way that seems effortless. But when they’re moderating a session virtually, and can’t respond to speakers’ body language and energy in real time, they may have trouble thinking on their feet. And when speakers can’t anticipate where the conversation might go next, they may get stuck on their feet, stall, and create a strained atmosphere in the session.  

So create a general outline so you can think of segways and follow up questions, anticipate where the discussion will go and what will be covered. We recommend sitting down with all your speakers so each one can participate in creating the flow. Consider things like questions, perspectives, tone, and transitions. This agenda will drive the discussion and help bring it back on track if it veers off course in between.

Distribute it to speakers and moderators in advance so they prepare accordingly - bring their A game to the discussion. 

5. Pick a good time for the webinar and get confirmations from the speakers or celebrity guests

Webinars are most commonly held before or after the 12pm lunch hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so schedule yours during those slots if possible. Also release an on-demand recording of your webinar, and email it to registrants that don’t attend live, so those who couldn’t make it can sign in later. 

6. Make technical arrangements 

Imagine if the Oscars took place in a warehouse with flickering lights and bad pipes. If it didn’t stop the show entirely, it’d certainly distract attendees and diminish the celebratory atmosphere. 

Tech issues can have a similar effect on your virtual discussion, no matter how compelling the content. So the week before your session, conduct a dry run to confirm your camera, mic and internet connection are all operational. From there, follow these steps to ensure your event runs smoothly: 

Onboard each speaker to your virtual event platform: If schedules allow, conduct practice sessions with each speaker, so they can learn how to activate/deactivate their cameras, respond to Q&As, etc. well in advance of the event. 

Allow time for troubleshooting on event day: Encourage presenters to log into the platform and test their mics/cameras 10-30 minutes before the session begins. 

Use desktops, not mobile devices: Encourage presenters to join from a desktop rather than a mobile device, so they’ll have a more secure internet connection and clearer sound and visuals. Also ensure they log in from a private internet connection, not a corporate VPN - corporate firewalls tend to block virtual event platforms, so speakers may not be able to access the session via that connection. 

Practice, practice, practice: Run several equipment checks before the session begins and consider hosting a practice webinar

Choose a backup service: Have a backup streaming service (either another virtual event platform, Zoom or even Facebook/YouTube Live) ready to go in case your first option fails. Also give your presenters and guests access to a customer support representative so they can resolve any issues directly.  

7. Use polls, chat and Q&A to keep guests engaged

Now that you’ve picked your speakers and moderator, planned your event flow and tested your tech, all you have to worry about is exciting your audience. So yeah, no pressure. 

Many hosts find it harder to engage their audience virtually. But through some tech tweaks, you can maintain your audience’s attention without seeming pushy or desperate. Start with the following: 

Comments and polls: Start the session by encouraging your audience to leave comments on the public or private chat - then give them a question to answer. This primes them to participate right away. You can ask participants questions via polls that pop up on the audience’s screens. (PS: Recruit one of your team members to monitor the chat, ask the audience questions and ban any unruly participants if necessary.) 

Handouts: Create a branded one-sheeter or eBook summarizing the main points of the discussion into a downloadable document. Participants can obtain it with one click and use it to follow along with the discussion. 

Gamification + giveaways: This can get a little gimmicky, but hear us out. Consider rewarding attendees for their participation by awarding them points for each poll, comment and question submitted, then provide a product bundle to the most engaged participant(s). (Select your winner or winners via a raffle or a prize count.) If you provide a product/service that’s relevant to your audience, or something exclusive, your gamification challenge can motivate reticent people to participate and start conversations. 

Questions: Prompt participants to submit questions to presenters via the Q&A function (BigMarker partners with Capsule, a video Q&A platform, so guests can submit their questions by video). Attendees can then upvote their favorite questions, which brings the best and most thoughtful questions to the top. Then have panelists address those popular questions at the end of the discussion. This ensures that participants get their biggest questions answered, which keeps them plugged in throughout the whole presentation.

Want to learn more about how the world's most innovative companies are using virtual events to create community and crush their goals? Talk to our sales team at sales@bigmarker.com or join us on Sept. 22 for Impact@Home, our virtual summit on hosting better virtual events.

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