How to put together an AWESOME panel

How to put together an AWESOME panel

Last Thursday, I chaired and facilitated a panel discussion at the Charity Comms ‘The power of human stories’ conference. It was the last slot of the day and it was on the topic of ‘Building a culture of storytelling’. (I pitched the idea of the panel to the team at Charity Comms because I genuinely believe in the saying ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast‘ and spotted a gap on the existing agenda).The panel worked brilliantly – you can read a great write up of the session at the end of this article. It brought a much needed burst of light-hearted and informal energy to the end of an incredibly powerful day, giving attendees a chance to listen, consolidate and absorb the learnings from the day. PLUS despite the worryingly long cloakroom queue, just before our session was due to start, we had an almost full room so most people stayed to the end!

So here’s what I learned from pulling together our awesome panel.

Let’s start with my definition of awesome. The best panels I’ve ever been part of or enjoyed watching have been diverse, expert and highly engaging for the audience. And that was exactly what I wanted to achieve with this panel.  So, how did I do it?

1. Make diversity a priority

It’s no secret that the charity sector has a diversity issue at the top. According to this Third Sector article,

“just 2.25 per cent of senior leaders within the sector were women of colour and only 2.9 per cent of trustees, according to data gathered from the top 500 charities by income by the diversity agency Inclusive Boards. Not one of the seven women chief executives at the top 20 charities by income in the UK is non-white.”

For me, it was really important that this panel provided an opportunity to showcase some amazing senior female Comms professionals from the sector, especially women of colour who are frequently underrepresented.

I made this a priority and frankly it wasn’t hard. Combining the strength of Charity Comms network with my own, we found a breadth of experts who each brought a different perspective on the challenges and opportunities of building a culture of storytelling within an organisation.

TOP TIP – if reaching out to your own network fails to bring forth recommendations of diverse speakers for a panel, look at awards listings and networks for inspiration. For example, the PRECIOUS awards is a great source for anyone looking for expert women of colour across different fields.

2. Prepare well in advance of the day itself

A good panel is not just a chat. The role of the chair and facilitator should be to bring out the expertise of panellists on the specific theme being discussed – in a way that allows the audience to take away something useful. This means that advance prep is essential to understand the expertise and experiences of your panellists, so you can draw it out through carefully considered questions AND ensure that you can direct audience questions to the right person if necessary. I briefed and interviewed each of my panellists a couple of weeks ahead of the day itself AND wrote an outline of the session (just like I do for any workshop or talk so everyone involved understood the focus and direction of the session but also leaving room for panellists to build on each others wisdom on the day. This also allows your panellists to think about and play to their individual strengths by having advance time to do a bit of prep too. This is really important if your panel is on a specific topic – you don’t want to disappoint the audience with vague advice or stories that have no relevance to the listeners.

TOP TIP – even if you write a brief for panellists and send it through in advance, it’s worth following it up with a face to face/telephone chat so you get a sense of their individual style of communication.

3. Think about your audience

As above, I’ve witnessed panels that are little more than a chat between the people on stage. And if that’s the case, it can be a bit like you’re overhearing a conversation between friends in a lift – if you’re lucky you might hear something a bit interesting, but it’s not relevant to you in any way. That is not a good use of your audience’s time. So make sure you are clear on the advertised topic, and what the audience is expecting from the panel before the day. During the session, if you’re facilitating, do bring your panellists back on track if they get off topic. And do think about the make up of your panel through the eyes of your audience. If you are speaking to a room full of small grassroots organisations, there’s no point having a panel who are only used to working with massive budgets. It’s frustrating when a panellist is asked a really obvious question on the advertised topic, then says ‘I’ve never experienced that’. Yikes.

TOP TIP – This is REALLY important if your panel topic is focused on a challenging issue that your audience are looking for help with. It’s both demotivating and frustrating to watch panellists on stage sharing success tips, if they don’t also recognise and acknowledge their challenges too.

In summary, pulling together a panel is a great way to share and compare the experiences and expertise from a breadth of  brands or individuals on a specific topic. But it’s also an opportunity to showcase lesser heard or under-represented voices in your industry. So here’s hoping these tips will help you do both at your next event.

We love speaking and facilitating at events and are ALWAYS looking for opportunities to showcase diverse and expert voices. To find out more, do get in touch!