Guide on the Side – Panel Panache

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters Internationaland is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Program planners are partial to panels because they are versatile. Audiences enjoy them too because they tend to be interactive and the presentations short and to the point. Panels can be used with many types of audiences: professional programs, public hearings, as well as on-the-job presentations. Today’s communication-literate professional can benefit from “panel panache”–how to put a panel together with style and punch.

Consider using a panel when your program objectives are to:

  • Stimulate debate or discussion
  • Broaden perspectives
  • Reinforce a position
  • Present more than one point of view
  • Raise consciousness
  • Introduce a mosaic of issues
  • Question the status quo
  • Address controversy

See the panel as a team:

  • Program planner (also often the moderator)
  • Moderator
  • Audience
  • Panelists
  • Facility manager for design of the physical layout (often the moderator)

Build a sound infrastructure:

  • Assess the audience’s interests and knowledge level
  • Select the approach that best meets the program objectives
  • Enable the panelists to communicate with each other in advance
  • Encourage panelists to prepare and communicate with each other
  • Brief the panelists on division of topic, approach and time allotments
  • Introduce audience to topic, approach, format and panelists
  • Provide for questions, comments and discussion
  • Use summations as transitions

Not all approaches are the same

Determine the approach to the topic before inviting panelists to participate. An approach may be broad, narrow, bring together or separate. The approach depends on the audience’s knowledge level of the topic, prevailing attitudes and the goals of the organization sponsoring the program.

Examples of types of approaches for a panel on proposed legislation seen to negatively impact the audience’s profession can be:

  • Pro and con on the legislative bill as it would relate to the specific profession
  • Functional implications of the bill for an administrative agency, impacted industry, related professions and consumers
  • Past, present and future perspectives–history of the problem the bill proposes to solve
  • Theory contrasted with applications of the proposed legislation
  • Kaleidoscope of undisputed facts, related issues and conflicting values.

If the audience anticipates certainty or your goal is to motivate them, evaluate the panel format carefully. A single powerful speaker is more likely to get buy-in to the topic. Alternatively, structure the panel to reaffirm the proposed solution. For instance, a program on weight lose with four experts (nutritionist, exercise trainer, psychologist and wellness practitioner) coordinates the main idea and the audience is impelled to action. But if your topic is how to lose weight and four panelists each promote a different diet, the audience is likely to be confused and do nothing.

Panels work well with in-house presentations, allowing different sectors of the enterprise a voice. Panelists can represent departments, staff functions or relevant outside constituencies (vendors and clients) for proposals, training, interviews, and status reports.

How many panelists?

  • Two to four panelists are most common
  • Panels with more than five panelists require the moderator to be especially skilled in orchestrating the time and discussion
  • Number depends on the approach and the amount of time available
  • Allow 10 to 20 minutes per panelist plus half again for questions.

Moderator’s responsibilities:

  • Invite panelists with a clear description of the panel structure and approach
  • Include contact information for each panelist so panelists can network
  • Arrange for the panelists to meet shortly before the program (dinner, breakfast or teleconference). Panelists do not need to rehearse but do need to have interacted on some level in advance. At this briefing, review the details of the format and reinforce with written information:

Speaking order
Length of speaking time for each panelists
Signal to be used to indicate time is up
When and how questions will be handled
Protocol for questions, i.e., repeat the question
Introductions – all at once or serially
Audio or video recording procedure
Audience’s knowledgeability of the subject and their main concerns
A/V equipment requirements for each panelist.


The moderator introduces the topic, the format and the panelists. The audience will want to know why you have chosen the approach. “Pro and con because this is such a hot topic and an election is coming up.” “Five different cultural points of view, because our clients are diverse.”

Take longer to introduce the topic than each speaker, i.e., three minutes on why this subject and approach for the audience now and one minute for each speaker. Concentrate on what qualifies the speaker to speak on the topic: job title, affiliation, years of experience and relevant degrees. Omit the part about her pet rhino and ten kids.

Indicate how individual speakers will be introduced. Some moderators introduce them all in the beginning and let each panelists turn the lectern over to the next panelist. This avoids a shuffle at the lectern. Another more informal arrangement that promotes continuous discussion is for the panelists to be seated at a table each with a microphone. There is no hard and fast rule on the best way to handle introductions, all at once or serially. When in doubt, discuss it with the panelists for their preference.

Summations and transitions

The moderator should summarize briefly after each panelist. “We have heard management’s point of view and now…”. Indicate transition to comments or questions. End the panel with a summation of the overall topic and acknowledgement of the panel.

What each panelist needs to know

Who on the panel will cover the “foundation” information for the topic: undisputed facts, basic concepts, maps, diagrams, photographs, glossary, chronology, charts, and statistics.

That time allotments for each panelist will be honored.

Content of handouts other panelists are planning to distribute.


Questions from the audience complete the panel. Announce when they will be accepted during, after each or after all presentations. Allow enough time for the audience to warm up to the issues raised. Floor microphones eliminate repeating the questions.

To encourage the audience to participate, avoid asking “Are there any questions?” A direct question seems to make people’s minds go blank. Instead prime the pump with “Which issue do you feel needs to be clarified?” or “What would you like to add?” You can start the ball rolling with a question or arrange for a panelist or member of the audience to ask one.

Another way to handle questions is for the moderator to start by posing questions to the panel. Harvard Law Professor Arthur R. Miller demonstrated this approach at a Graylyn Conference with a panel of 13 law related deans, judges, association officials, partners and librarians on the larger question of legal research skills. This works well when the audience is already well informed on the issues but seeks more understanding and the moderator is highly skilled.

Physical arrangements options and tips

Will panelists speak sitting, standing at a lectern or from projector/computer?
Will speakers sit in a straight line or in a curve to allow them to see each other?
Will panelists be seated at a table, chairs on the dais or in the audience?
Is there a microphone for each speaker?

Name cards help the audience to interact with the panel.
When the audience is seated so they can see one and other, there will be more participation.
When the panelists can see each other, there is more cohesion.
When speakers stand they can be more easily heard, seen and understood, and they project more authority to the audience.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills, Program Planning