How to run a panel for fun and profit

“You should run a panel!” Hearing thoughtbot’s CEO Diana speak those words put both confidence and fear into my mind. Putting together an expert speaking panel sounded like a scary amount of work. I hadn’t been on a stage since elementary school, I’d have to hustle a bunch of people above my pay grade to agree to stick their necks out for me, and I believed there was a high likelihood of failure. The only thing driving me on was Diana’s enthusiasm that it would be a great thing. Little did I know of the hidden benefits that come to the one who puts on the hat of… The Panel Organizer.

It’s not an expert panel, it’s a networking and educational hack

Think of it this way – people wouldn’t be putting on panels or sitting in panels if they weren’t getting something out of it, and panels exist, therefore there must be some benefit to putting one on. So what do the benefits look like?

  • You become connected to interesting people with overlapping career trajectories to your own, likely in wildly different sectors of industry.
  • You get an opportunity to ask and have answered a ton of questions from experts that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
  • Your resume gets an instant upgrade.

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly: when a topic comes up that you’ve run a panel on, you’ll carry confidence. You’ll know for a fact that you’ll be able to deliver a solid answer. Having run a panel, I know that I can confidently pull a line out of my back pocket like, “I was part of a panel that addressed a similar challenge, and what I can recommend is…”

Sound like fun yet? Would you like to know more?

What the heavy lifting looks like

Most people are looking for connection in some form or another. Connecting around a shared interest is as close to an instinctual behavior as I’ve encountered in people, and doubly so if that interest revolves around a shared unknown. The work in putting together a panel, then, is to find a topic that a group of people are both interested in, yet slightly confused about.

As the panel organizer, your work is then clear:

  1. Find 3-4 people who are scared of the same thing
  2. Throw them into a cage match in front of a live audience and ask them difficult questions
  3. Lean back and enjoy the show!

I jest; it’s honestly not as hard as you might imagine. So long as you bring the willpower, your panel dreams can come alive!

How to pick a good panel topic

On a high-level, a good panel topic brings together two groups of people:

  1. People who have a shared pain point, who might do business with your company to get through that pain point
  2. People with experience dealing with the pain

On a lower-level, i.e. figuring out the content of the topic, what’s worked for me is this: start listening to clients for things that are causing them stress in their current role. The trick is to tune in to their tone of voice. When a topic comes up that is truly uncomfortable, empty your mind and listen to what is being said.

As you listen, pay attention for these qualities:

  • The topic doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all-answer (this is key)
  • The topic has a communication element, i.e. it isn’t entirely technical

I’ll give an example of how I picked a topic for a panel I ran last year. I was conversing with a client who knew in his gut that thoughtbot could help address a large piece of technical debt in a cost-effective manner, but he did not yet have the budget to greenlight the project. There was something in the tone of his voice that intrigued me. The tone suggested that a deeper dance was going on between Engineering and Finance, and I wanted to learn more.

There was definitely not a one-size-fits-all answer, and a heavy communications element seemed to be involved. Thus, a panel topic was born.

In the case that you aren’t 100% sure on how to connect a panel topic to something that might attract business, I recommend leaning heavily on the “educate others” angle, and to steer away from the “hire us or buy our stuff” angle, as it may turn off both the audience and your panelists. When in doubt, speak with your local marketer!

How to find an unlimited number of people willing to be stared at for an hour

One of the great things about thoughtbot is that people who work here have great connections with people who work elsewhere. I reached out to a few people internally, including Diana and our Chief Marketing Officer, Lindsey, asking if they knew of any VP Engineering or Chief Technology Officer-level clients I might be able to speak with. Before I knew it, I had spoken with a dozen people. To my surprise, they were all friendly, helpful, and most were willing to be part of the panel!

From here, I had a starter list of panel candidates. To build on that list, what I recommend is to ask the asking the following question at the very end of the candidate interview: “Can you recommend else who might be interested in being on the panel?” This is an old referral-generating technique that may serve to multiply the size of your candidate pool.

Once you’ve got a list, start whittling it down based on whom you think would offer the right perspectives and have some great chemistry together. That’s it!

On moderating and panel structure

If you ask me, I think it’s best that the organizer also serves as the audience-facing moderator. By now you’ve built up trust with a group of people are willing to stick their necks out for you. Swapping the moderator out for someone new will create uncertainty, and likely lead to a less-successful event. Besides, that’s where the fun stuff happens!

Moderating is a lot easier than it sounds. Remember that this isn’t a contentious political debate, it’s a group of people interested in sharing their opinions and learning from each other.

Here are few suggestions on structure to get you rolling:

  • Watch a few panels on YouTube. Take notes on what works for you, and on things that you might do differently. For bonus points, when you feel a moment of tension during the panel, pause the video, and think through how you might approach it before you see how the moderator chose to handle it.
  • Prior to scheduling the panel, build an audience avatar. Think about your target group, demographic, role, and especially think about the problem being discussed. Drill into how it creates fear, frustration, anticipation or excitement in the audience. Ask your panelists for help!
  • Begin with the end in mind: in order for the audience to walk away with a fresh perspective, what needs to be overcome?
  • Collect a set of questions from people signing up to attend, and share those questions with the panelists ahead of time. Ask the panelists to mark questions they’re interested in answering, so that you know who to call on (or not call on) during the event.
  • Early on in the panel, validate the feelings of your audience avatar.
  • Take a few questions directly from the live audience.
  • Conclude by giving each panelist a minute or so for their final thoughts, thanking them for their time, and then thanking the audience.
  • Lastly, wrap the panel with a soft call-to-action back to your company, e.g. “I’d like to thank [your company] for sponsoring this panel. To get help with [the problem], find us on [marketing channels].”

Having a clock on your desk will do wonders. Trust me on this one.

How to facilitate a memorable panel experience for both panelists and attendees

By setting the stage for your panelists and attending to their needs, you’ll wind up creating a great experience for your attendees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I’ve received feedback that each of these things were helpful, so I’ll pass them on to you:

  • Connect with the panelists early and often. Give them the VIP treatment. Check in with them a couple of times before the panel to address any concerns, capture any ideas they’ve come up with, and help them deal with any nervousness that might come up. Getting up on a stage, even if it’s virtual, can be a stressful thing, and by helping your panelists navigate that stress, you’ll gain their trust and help them shine when they’re hit with the spotlight.
  • Introduce the panelists to each other via email a couple of weeks out from the event. If you know anything in particular that any of them have in common, list that in the introductory email so that they have an easy topic with which to build connection.
  • Invite the panelists to a private Slack channel the week of the event. Let them build up some rapport and share ideas/links as the panel date approaches.
  • Schedule half an hour before the panel for the “green room.” Let the panelists get acquainted and build rapport and camaraderie as the opening curtain approaches.
  • Schedule an hour after the panel for the “after party.” There will be a lot to discuss and debrief. Enjoy this part, as you’ve all earned it! Close with an invitation to stay connected. If you notice any two panelists collaborating on something, encourage them to keep that collaboration going, and ask if there’s a way you can support it, whether through a LinkedIn post, a blog article, or another call a month down the road.
  • Be authentic and respect that the panelists have a wealth of experience you can learn from. Listen as much as you can.
  • Take questions from the audience, and announce that you’re doing so – “I have an audience question coming in that asks, ‘….’ Would anyone like to tackle this one?”

Ready to get famous? Let’s go!

For those who have a healthy fear of putting one of these together, I empathize with you completely, as it’s a scary thing to pull off! What’s worked for me in the past is to connect with someone I trust and ask them for support when needed, knowing that sometimes all I need is to be heard.

If you’re looking for a personal and professional stretch, I highly encourage you to think about putting together a panel this year. Good luck!