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How I organize and moderate panels

Published March 26, 2024

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve recently witnessed or participated in a conference panel that sucked.


Maybe you were an audience member who paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket, only to watch speakers say nothing of substance. Or you were the moderator, struggling to keep speakers focused while they shamelessly promoted their own agendas. Or you were a featured speaker who had to endure generic questions and an awkward atmosphere, wondering why you even bothered to join in the first place.


I have personally found myself in all three roles multiple times. And yet, I’m here to tell you that panels don’t have to suck. They can even be fun!



I’ve organized, moderated, and/or spoken on panels at over 40 conferences in my career — from industry gatherings like SXSW, Midem, and Mutek, to events under my own company Water & Music, including our Wavelengths Summit in May 2023. Through a combination of direct experience and feedback from my peers, I’ve developed a strong radar for what discussions resonate the most, and least, with a wide range of audiences.


Aside from perhaps a few soundbites for the press, bad panels waste everyone’s time and energy — the epitome of “this meeting could’ve been an email.”


But at their best, panels are a prime opportunity to cut through the noise by curating a focused set of ideas and insights for a curious, lean-in audience.


Pulling off a successful panel is easier said than done. There are many moving parts to juggle, including event organizers' timelines, speakers' schedules and interests, and attendees' short attention spans.


That said, there are several recurring patterns among bad panels that I believe are preventable with the right preparation. Just like being a good host or leader, running a great panel requires planning and practice. You can't wing it and expect to do well.


The guide below is my framework for ensuring that any panel I'm involved with is as successful as it can be. I wrote this guide primarily from the perspective of a moderator or event organizer, but I hope it serves as a helpful reference no matter what role you play in the process.


In summary —

☐ Purpose: Does the discussion have a clear purpose that is appropriate for a panel format?

☐ Speakers: Are the speakers suitable for the panel’s purpose?

☐ Engagement: Are you engaging both speakers and attendees fairly in service of the panel’s purpose?

☐ Archival: Are there resources for people to revisit the panel's learnings after the fact?




Purpose: Does the discussion have a clear purpose that is appropriate for a panel format?


The first myth to debunk about panels is that they are one-size-fits-all. In reality, not every topic is a good fit for a panel.


Let’s illustrate the inherent limitations of panels with some back-of-the-napkin math. A common setup for a panel at a music industry conference is a 45-minute discussion plus 15 minutes of audience Q&A, with one moderator and four speakers. In this scenario, each speaker has only around 10 minutes maximum to contribute their own perspective on the topic.


This makes panel discussions the public-speaking equivalents of tweets — leaving little room for nuance or depth, as a tradeoff for being accessible and concise.


That said, event organizers can wield this limitation to their benefit by framing panels as macro overviews of trends and problem spaces, with clear messaging that the panel is meant to be just the start of a longer-term conversation.


In my experience, panels work best in the following use cases (not mutually exclusive):

  • “Starter packs” — establishing a shared language around a core industry concept or trend. Some of the best panels I’ve participated in were successful because they narrowed their scope to exploring just one or two fundamental ideas, through the lenses of speakers from different professional backgrounds.

  • Personal stories — showcasing speakers' own case studies of navigating an industry, including the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned. This approach is particularly powerful in areas that have been historically plagued by information asymmetry, whereby speakers can pull back the curtain on behind-the-scenes dynamics and share alternative tactics for success that defy the status quo.

  • Breaking silos — presenting contrasting perspectives on a timely, nuanced debate. For instance, a discussion on music rights in an emerging market could feature stakeholders including local streaming services, record labels, publishers, and artist management firms, each of which brings a unique view to the table that would otherwise be siloed in their day-to-day work. The approach is especially effective if the moderator and speakers are willing to engage with dissenting opinions from each other.


On the flip side, panels usually fall flat when organizers try to shoehorn the format onto a topic that doesn't fit.


By nature, panels are more structured and hierarchical, with a curated group of speakers addressing a largely passive audience in a limited timeframe. This makes the format poorly suited for live brainstorming — which thrives on a free-flowing exchange of ideas, a wider range of participants, and minimal constraints. 


The inherently restricted nature of panels also makes the format inappropriate for solving complex, systemic challenges. To give a music-industry example: It’s really hard to find a good panel on “the future of music rights management,” because the challenges at play realistically require years of cooperation and negotiation among multiple stakeholders, in a way that cannot be properly condensed into an hour. If a panel claims to be "solving" a major issue, that's an immediate red flag to me.


That said, panels can be an effective platform for speakers to compare and contrast their individual experiences, and exchange the techniques they used to overcome specific challenges. The distinction between dissecting case studies and claiming to present or brainstorm industry-wide solutions is subtle, but crucial for managing expectations for both speakers and audiences. What works for one company might fail spectacularly for another operating under different financial, cultural, or social conditions, and so should not be parroted as the singular panacea for an industry.


The bright side of all this is that panels don't need all the answers. It's more than okay to end with questions that invite further conversation among the speakers and audience members, as long as everyone in the room is aligned on their reason for being there.


So, before you start planning a panel, ask yourself: What's the purpose of this discussion, and is a panel truly the best format to achieve it? When used strategically, panels excel at establishing foundational language, sharing personal stories, and presenting contrasting perspectives on a macro trend. But for tackling problem-solving and brainstorming — which require more complex, free-flowing interaction among diverse participants over an extended period of time — alternative formats like roundtables or interactive workshops might be better tools for the job.


A clear purpose also benefits your audience by aligning their expectations with reality. If you promise "actionable solutions" but instead present a spicy, inconclusive debate — or if you advertise the opportunity to learn platform-agnostic industry fundamentals, but instead end up with speakers plugging their own products — your audience will disengage.



Speakers: Are the speakers suitable for the panel’s purpose?


Once you’ve decided that a panel format is appropriate for the purpose of your discussion, the next step is to curate the right slate of speakers around that purpose.


From my experience, a great panelist has four key qualities:

  1. Relevant, hands-on experience

  2. Engaging storytelling skills

  3. Alignment with the panel's purpose

  4. Complementary perspective to the other speakers


Too often, I’ve seen conference organizers prioritize the first two elements (impressive resumes and speaking experience) over the last two (purpose alignment and group dynamics) — leading to a disjointed discussion that falls flat with the audience, even if the given topic fits the panel format on paper.


Below are some tips that I’ve found helpful for balancing all of these elements into building a speaker slate that stands out:


Prioritize alignment upfront


You can assemble an all-star lineup of speakers, but if they aren't aligned on the panel's purpose, the discussion will suffer.


If you want to highlight personal stories, your panelists must be willing to be vulnerable, not just recite talking points. If you want to spark debate, they must be ready to engage with opposing views.


Alignment starts with the event organizers, who must set a clear purpose for the panel and communicate expectations clearly to both speakers and audiences. As a moderator, ensure you're on the same page with the organizer and the speakers about the panel's objectives. If the organizer is vague, you may need to take the lead in establishing a vision.


In this vein, the pre-panel prep call is crucial not just for logistics, but also for setting the stage for a cohesive and successful discussion. Use this time to ask speakers what excites or concerns them about the topic at hand; encourage them to get to know each other as well, so they feel comfortable sharing information more openly. If the chemistry is off, the audience will notice.

Rethink “expertise”


At large, the most engaging panels not only deliver insights, but also broaden representation, challenging traditional notions of who's "qualified" to drive the conversation.


In the context of panel curation, there are significant limitations to relying on seniority alone as the primary filter for “expertise.” While senior executives can speak to high-level strategy, entry- and mid-level employees often have deeper insights into day-to-day execution. Similarly, while seasoned public speakers bring polish, first-time panelists can bring fresh stories and perspectives to the table.


Diversify (within bounds)


In the context of curating a panel, diversity isn't just a buzzword — it's a catalyst for insight. When you bring together speakers with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, you create the conditions for a richer, more multifaceted discussion that sparks fresh ideas and challenges entrenched assumptions.

Let's imagine you're attending a panel on "The Future of Music Streaming." You look up at the stage and see four middle-aged white men in suits, who all work for major labels or streaming platforms. This scenario happens nearly every year at major music conferences, and usually leads to a conversation that supports the incumbents' perspective on the topic, and not much else. While incumbent strategy is certainly critical for understanding the wider market landscape, the lack of diversity inherently caps the amount of insight that will come from this discussion.

Now, picture the same panel with a more diverse mix of speakers — say, a young, independent artist who's built a loyal following on SoundCloud; a veteran music journalist who's covered the industry for decades; a tech entrepreneur who's developing a new streaming payout model; and a label executive who's championing equitable revenue-sharing for artists in their contracts. Suddenly, the conversation has potential to be far more dynamic, nuanced, and illuminating, breaking down silos to paint a more comprehensive picture of the issues at stake.


Of course, diversity for diversity's sake isn't enough. As discussed earlier, the key is to ensure the speakers are aligned around a shared purpose, and committed to building on each other's ideas. But within that framework, a diversity of perspectives is both a moral imperative and a strategic advantage, paving the way for a conversation that is more engaging and, ultimately, more memorable.



Engagement: Are you engaging both speakers and attendees fairly in service of the panel’s purpose?


As a moderator, the way you approach a panel can make or break its outcome. Your job is part host, part storyteller, part air traffic controller; both speakers and audience members are looking to you to keep everyone engaged and comfortable, all while staying true to the panel's purpose.


Many of the skills you need as a moderator overlap with those of a great interviewer at large: Doing your research, asking the right questions, controlling the flow, and understanding your role as a conduit between your subject and your audience. I recommend reading my process on conducting interviews for detailed advice on mapping out questions to ask for your panel discussion; much of the same process carries over from one kind of interview to the next.


For this article, I want to focus on the distinct set of challenges that live panels present for moderators compared to editorial interviews. With panels, you're juggling multiple speakers, a live and sometimes impatient audience, and an A/V setup that could go wrong at any point.


Below are some tips that have helped me navigate these challenges as a moderator, and make the live experience as enjoyable as possible:


Encourage active audience participation beyond Q&As


When it comes to panels, I always say that the collective wisdom and experience of everyone in the audience far exceeds the “expertise” of the people onstage.


There are many ways to tap into that collective expertise to enrich a panel experience, beyond just concluding Q&A sessions. You can use live polls to gauge attendees' opinions on key topics, or have people submit questions via a mobile app throughout the panel. If time and space allow, you could even break the audience into smaller groups for guided discussions. The more you can make the audience feel like active participants, the more invested they'll be in the panel's outcomes.


(At the Water & Music Wavelengths Summit, we used Slido to crowdsource attendees’ thoughts on current tech trends in real time during our roundtable discussions. It was both a huge audience hit — like a live Twitch chat for conferences — and an enlightening source of insight and context for our speakers.)


Ensure equal airtime for speakers


As a moderator, it's important to foster an environment where all panelists feel valued and empowered to contribute. This starts with curating a diverse lineup in the first place — but it doesn't end there.

During the discussion, be mindful of who's dominating the conversation, and who might be getting less airtime. If you have a particularly long-winded panelist, you should briefly acknowledge and recap their point, then rebalance the conversation towards another speaker (e.g. "Great insight, [Speaker A]. [Speaker B], what's your take on this, given your experience?").


As a preventative measure, it helps to establish ground rules upfront during prep calls about equal speaking time. It also helps to prepare targeted questions tailored to each speaker’s unique expertise, to ensure that you can carve out a designated opportunity for everyone on the panel to drive the conversation forward in their own way.


Handle “Q&A hijackers” with grace


Every moderator dreads the "Q&A hijacker" — ie. an attendee who uses their question time to grandstand or push their own agenda. As with an unprepared or unfit panelist, Q&A hijackers can derail the overall discussion and frustrate other attendees if left unchecked.


The key as a moderator is to be firm but polite, and to intervene as soon as you sense a hijacker taking over. Interrupt them if necessary, thanking them for their thoughts but redirecting the discussion back to the panel. If they persist, remind them that others are waiting to ask questions, and that you need to keep things moving.


Your goal is not to embarrass the hijacker, but to ensure that everyone interested has an equal chance to engage, and to maintain the goodwill and momentum you've worked hard to build over the course of the event.


Archival: Are there resources for people to revisit the panel's learnings after the fact?


The most memorable panels don't just engage in the moment; they resonate long after the event ends. They spark new conversations, forge lasting connections, and build foundational knowledge in your field. 


Here are some optional, but highly recommended, tips for your panel to have a lasting impact beyond the stage:


Archive your insights


Unless your panel is explicitly off-the-record, its wisdom shouldn’t be ephemeral. Create article recaps, Twitter threads, or follow-up emails highlighting key takeaways for a wider audience. Encourage attendees to continue the discussion online using a dedicated event hashtag or forum, which can help foster a sense of community around the topic.


Provide follow-up resources


Encourage deeper exploration by providing attendees with relevant follow-up materials, including context-setting articles, websites, projects, and expert contact info. You could even create supplementary guides to key concepts covered during the discussion, or assemble directories of relevant industry professionals (perhaps from the attendee base itself). These resources empower attendees to dig deeper and apply the panel's insights to their own work.

Encourage in-person networking

Especially in music and B2B circles, relationships are everything. Use your panel as a catalyst for face-to-face connections, by carving out dedicated time before and/or after the event for attendees to network. You never know what kinds of game-changing collaborations or partnerships may come from these interactions down the line.



Ultimately, all of the above guidance can be summed up as approaching your panel with a long-term mindset — curating diverse voices, fostering meaningful engagement, and offering resources that shape the wider discourse and keep the conversation alive long after the last question is asked.


If you are planning your next panel, I invite to look beyond the limited time you have to speak, and to consider the ripple effects your discussion could have. When done right, panels transcend their reputation for just being talking heads on pedestals; they plant the seeds for new voices to be heard, for bold ideas to take hold, and for the next industry paradigms to emerge.


The stage is yours. Use it wisely. ✷

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