Ah the virtual panel. What might once have been the event of the season, a chance to wear one's finest attire and flirt mercilessly with the poor caterers in a starkly lit, multi-purpose event hall, has now been reduced to the online realm. Instead of gowns, we wear frowns as we fiddle with the webcam and breathe much too heavily into the microphone, and our poor, exasperated colleagues plead with us to go on mute.
But alas, here we find ourselves, and make the best of things we must. So, without further ado, let us delve into the ways we can make our panel one to remember, even if it is online.
Decide what the panel is going to be for
The first order of business is to decide the purpose of the virtual panel. Is it to educate your audience about something new and exciting like how to secure a pipeline? Or is it to update them about the progress of some business venture or riveting project? Setting the aim of your panel, like any good science experiment, is the first step in ensuring the success of the event.
You will want to:
- Set the aim of the panel
- Create subcategories of things you would like to achieve / areas you would like to address
- Decide how you will measure the success of your panel
Choose a virtual platform for the event
Deciding which teleconferencing platform you want to use early on is a good idea as this will help you to determine what you can do during your event. While there are many competing platforms out there, picking whichever one meets any security requirements, as well as any tools that you need or specific characteristics (e.g. user or discussion-friendly platforms) will help you to narrow down your options.
Things to consider when choosing your platform:
- Do you need a virtual receptionist?
- How accessible it is for your audience to use.
- How user-friendly and intuitive it is.
- Whether or not you have to pay for the platform.
- Functions like screen sharing, raising your hand, or the inclusion of automatic subtitle features for any hard-of-hearing and deaf members in the audience.
- How reliable and secure the platform is.
- Whether there are any limits to the number of attendees.
- What the conference room set up is like.
Assemble a hodgepodge of interesting characters for your panel
Any engaging webinar or panel needs a variety of different and diverse panelists. You want your panel members to all bring different things to the table. They should be from different demographic backgrounds, and have different experiences and perspectives they can talk about.
A good virtual panel should be dynamic and challenging in a positive way, inviting attendees to consider things from a host of different perspectives they may not have encountered before.
You will want to consider the following things when assembling your panel:
- How relevant their input is for the discussion;
- How much experience they have;
- Whether they all come from different backgrounds to a greater or lesser extent;
- How interesting their perspective will be for attendees;
- Whether they’re good at presenting.
Even the most timid public speakers can deliver a killer talk with the right prep, so we’re not suggesting you only ask the loudest and most boisterous people you can find to speak on your panel. In fact, a setting where people are given a chance to talk and be heard without having to physically go on a stage might be quite perfect for more introverted folks.
Decide who the moderator will be
If you’re reading this, perhaps your team has already assigned you to be the moderator, in which case you can probably skip this step. If, however, you have still to decide this, then keep reading. When choosing a moderator, it can be a good idea to choose someone who’s able to be impartial and good at keeping people to the time slot allotted to them. They should be good at keeping the flow of the conversation moving along so that everyone gets to do their part without running way over.
Your moderator should be someone who has a little knowledge of the discussion topic, but not necessarily an expert in the area or someone deeply involved in the project. To remain impartial, a little distance from the topic is preferable. It’s also a good idea to select an individual who is organized enough to keep an eye on the time, and personable enough to be able to politely hurry people along when necessary. They should also ideally be the sort of person who remembers to turn on the webinar recording software before the session begins!
Keep the content relevant and riveting
The content for your panel should be exciting, interesting and relevant. You want your attendees to be as engaged as possible by the talks, and not inundated with filler or any boring or irrelevant material. It’s better to have a shorter but more interesting panel than a long but overly rambly selection of talks.
The presentations should also offer an interesting array of perspectives with people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise. If your event is called "what is observability platform" you won’t only want to have content from software engineers for the panel, but also content from project managers, finance officers, and anyone else whose work is impacted by the software.
Meet and greet the panelists before hand
Before you launch your virtual panel, it’s a good idea to meet and greet your panelists one to one or as a group, online or in person. This gives you all a chance to get to know each other and ask any questions, as well as collaborating on creating the structure for your panel.
It’s also advisable to have your panelists online about 15 to 20 minutes before the start of your virtual panel to make sure that all of their mics and cameras are working properly and to ascertain whether the WiFi gods are in a good mood that day. This is also a good chance for everyone to relax and get in the spirit of the panel before it starts.
Leave room for ad hoc moments
You should schedule in extra time to pad your panelists’ time slots in order to leave room for any off-the-cuff moments and events. If someone’s toddler waddles into the room while their parent is presenting, or someone in the audience has a burning question on the subject of ‘what is retail management’, or the internet gods become displeased, that extra time can prevent your virtual panel from going too far over the schedule. It also prevents your panelists from becoming flustered or stressed.
Have a test run before you start
You may want your panelists to have a test run of the event before the real thing, but a lot of people are a bit too busy for that. What you can do however is ask your panelists to send over any powerpoint presentations or videos they wish to use during the virtual panel to you at least a week or two in advance. This can help you, the moderator, to make sure that they work and are all compatible with the webinar platform of your choice.
Find ways to engage your audience
As well as talks from your amazing panelists, there are plenty of ways to engage your audience instead of only having them listen passively, even if the subject seems like something a bit dry such as corporate compliance training. A lot of platforms for hosting virtual panels offer the ability to send reactions as the individual is presenting, as well as a chat function that can sit alongside the video without detracting from the presentation.
You can go a step further and make room for questions to be asked, either after all of the speakers have finished, or after each individual speaker. You can also include polls that people can participate in, voting on various subject matters. You can include a quiz, or ask questions that attendees can then type answers to.
It’s a good idea to highlight the things your attendees are typing into the chat, giving them shout-outs for their good ideas. Even if the attendees aren’t speaking into the microphone, it’s important to acknowledge their contributions and engage with them in other ways so that they don’t end up being ignored or neglected.
Everything in moderation, even moderating
The role of the moderator is to ensure the smooth unfolding of the virtual panel event. However, you don’t need to over-moderate. If you organize it well, test everything beforehand, include a diverse and interesting group of panelists, ensure you have some padding in terms of time, and find ways to engage your audience, then the event will moderate itself for the most part. A panel is a dynamic thing, and your job is to shepherd it gently in the right direction.
Grace Lau - Director of Growth Content, Dialpad
Grace Lau is the Director of Growth Content at Dialpad, an AI-powered cloud communication platform for better and easier team collaboration. She has over 10 years of experience in content writing and strategy. Currently, she is responsible for leading branded and editorial content strategies, partnering with SEO and Ops teams to build and nurture content.