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Ignite your Panel Discussions

Five tips for designing breakouts that rock

By Wendy Helfenbaum

Ditch the draped conference tables and tired PowerPoint slides. Shake up your next panel session with these expert ideas:

Set the stage
Doug Bolger, chief learning officer at Learn2 in Toronto, recommends fireside chats, complete with a roaring fire projected onscreen. “We add comfy chairs and a couple of ferns, which creates a more intimate space and gets people out of their formalized responses,” he says.

Tahira Endean, event producer at the BC Innovation Council in Vancouver incorporates scent. “We’ve started bringing in fresh-cut lemons, rosemary or basil—just one scent, which creates a visceral overlay into your space. It wakes up your brain and opens up your neurotransmitters,” she says.

Manage your moderator
Be clear on the objectives upfront. “Don’t assume that a personality can derive value out of a panel or prepare the participants,” says Bolger. “If they’re not asking for an upfront phone call with your panelists to really explore the value to the audience, then they’re the wrong fit.”

Moderators should draw interesting stories from panelists while encouraging debate—and be able to swiftly shut down stage hogs.

Engage conflict
Booking panelists who don’t share the same opinions ups the interest factor by generating a more authentic discussion that challenges the audience, says Bolger.

Mix up your media
Forget passing the microphone around, which interrupts the flow of conversation. Chantal Montpetit, director of meetings and conferences at the Canadian Construction Association in Ottawa, uses lapel mics so speakers can roam around the stage.

AV can be a marketing tool and a way to engage younger attendees. For the BC Tech Summit in January, Endean bought branded Catchbox mics, which can be tossed around like a beach ball. “Students asked tons of questions, partly because they got to throw around the Catchbox,” reports Endean.

Question your Q&As
Endean gets panelists to answer questions in ‘Freeze Tag’ format. “Panelists often don’t listen to the other presenters; they’re thinking of their own next answer. With ‘Freeze Tag’, I stop speakers in the middle of their response and have the next person continue—it forces them to pay attention and it’s really fun.”

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