People buy people, not products or services. That makes the panel discussion a particularly powerful way to get across their benefits – because having a group of speaking onstage allows you to bring in voices from right across the business.

However, when you have lots of voices – and lots of egos! – in a limited time slot, things can go badly wrong if the moderator is not in control. That’s why you can’t run a successful panel without thorough preparation.

This month, I have been working with a number of teams who have put panel discussions on their conference agendas. What I’ve been emphasising is that the moderator is key.

Sometimes the moderator believes that they can just wing it on the day and react in the moment. That is a recipe for a rambling and diluted message.

A good moderator should be aware of the content that the panellists will use in advance of any event … so that they can help create a coherent thread for the audience.

Likewise, a panel discussion should be centred on that audience. It should aim to answer the burning questions that an audience bring to a given discussion. You’re trying to inform and persuade the people listening: to do that, you need to address their interests.

Do your research: a moderator’s job is to help the panel engage the audience, partly by anticipating what the audience wants and partly by understanding each panellist’s expertise and interests. A discussion can then be guided and structured so that it proves both useful andedifying.

Perhaps one of the most important principles for a moderator to understand is that they are the custodians of fairness. They need to ensure that each speaker has equal time – and that audience members are heard when possible.

We in the audience have a highly developed sense of fairness … and if one panellist is given multiple turns on the microphone while another sits silent, we know it and dislike it. A panel discussion should give every perspective an airing.

As a rule of thumb, if you have more than three experts on your panel, then let each of them speak at least once before you take questions from the floor. And when it’s time for questions, likewise ensure that no one member of the audience hogs the limelight.

In other words, research and preparation will keep a discussion on track – and avoid it becoming shapeless or chaotic. And a fruitful discussion means more conversions.

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