Think back to your last panel discussion you have experienced. What memories, pictures, colors, smells, feelings and impressions come to your mind? Is it gain or pain?

Pain or gain, in my experience the outcome depends a lot on the mindset in which the panel was designed and organized. With a centralized mindset the chances are big that there was a divide between the talking panelists sitting ‘up there’ and passively listening audience ‘down there’ (read my last blog post Input? Sure if it is inspiring, engaging and co-created!).

It is time to shake this practice upside down. Interactive panel discussions are possible with some twists and tweaks and with a networked mindset. In a facilitation training I was co-hosting lately we did exactly that – shaking up the top down pattern and exploring creative possibilities on how to turn panels into engaging and lively interactions. We used What? So What? And Now What? for our inquiry process:

  • What do we notice in panel formats we participated/ facilitated?
  • So, what does this mean for learning, engagement, contribution?
  • Now, where do we go from here in our own practice as workshop organizers and facilitators?
What? So What? Now What?
What? So What? Now What? (Liberating Structures)

The trouble with many panels

Many panels do not create sufficient engagement, they tend to lack spontaneity and true dialogue. The quality of the panelists’ exchange varies a lot from delivery of precooked messages, to a series of monologues, to Q&A and some debate. The physical separation between panelists and audience is not stimulating interaction either. That is a missed opportunity because in conversation, panelists and audience advance their thinking, their perspectives, their learning.

Panels that boost interaction

So, how do twisted and tweaked panels that are inclusive and interactive look like? We worked with our hands and created solutions with paper, scissors, scotch and colorful modelling clay to answer that question.

Three twisted options of panels that boost interaction
Three twisted options of panels that boost interaction

Question ping pong

The starting arrangement is similar as in a Fishbowl discussion with an inner and an outer circle, the panelists sit in the middle, the audience around them in four small groups. Each group is equipped with a flipchart to collect questions. In the panel itself two empty chairs are ready for participants to join and add to the conversation whenever they feel their contribution is meaningful. The panel and each group are facilitated by its own facilitator. The panel starts with the groups discussing and collecting questions for the panelists. After a first round of question-driven conversation, the panelists give some questions back to the groups for discussion. At a certain stage of the evolving process, the panelists join the groups for a more in-depth discussion. For the closing, one representative from each group shares some key insights in the panel.

Dialogue with panelists

In this version the arrangement is also similar as in a Fishbowl discussion. The panel discussion starts with the panelists sharing some personal stories and anecdotes related to the topic while the audience is invited to answer some questions via their mobile devices. After the first round of panel discussion everybody – panelists and audience – stand up and move in the room; first the panelists find a seat in one of the group circles. The members of the audience join the panelist they want to have a conversation with. In the last discussion round, the panelists (or a representative from each group) come together in the inner circle and share their take-aways from the whole session.

Distributed panel – whole room interaction

In this version, the room arrangement of the panel ‘here’ and audience ‘there’ is broken up. The panelists are seated in the audience distributed over the whole room (equipped with a microphone and ready to stand up when speaking). The panelists are well chosen and represent diversity (gender, North-South, position, background, etc.). The process is facilitated by at least two facilitators. The rhythm of the conversation varies from some panel interventions, to interaction through mobile devices to buzz groups in pairs and trios in which the panelists engage with the members of the audience sitting next to them.

More options

  • Dynamite panel: Panelists ask each other quick and dirty questions. Definitely a spontaneous and dynamic version (shared to me by Qua Fisher).
  • Story fishbowl: with participants sharing stories and anecdotes.
  • Quick thinking out loud panel: as a sort of quick pulse-check, 3-5 participants exchange what is on their mind right now (questions, insights).
  • De Bono colored hats fishbowl: Bring some black, white, green, blue, red and yellow hats so that people can take a certain perspective when stepping into the panel discussion circle.
  • Lean coffee style Fishbowl with a Kanban board for questions: Have a pinboard and sufficient post-it notes ready to collect and select questions guiding the discussion (thanks Daniel Glinz for sharing this variation).

The facilitator’s checklist

  • Always be clear about the purpose, why a panel is the right format.
  • Choose the panelists Everyone can be a panelist (experts or bosses tend to be in the panel, but why)? An interesting mix of stakeholders where people feel represented is stimulating. Invest time into a good briefing of the panelists so that they know what will happen and why and how.
  • Have a room big enough to hold a panel and accommodate several group circles. Have a plan of how to arrange the chairs and additional facilities (flipcharts, pinboards, screen, interactive social media tools).
  • Process: define a flow that is interactive, engaging and activating everyone, unleashing all voices in the room. Alternate the rhythm of whole group and smaller groups. We need panels that are an interesting experience for panelists and participants. Interaction that use the experience, knowledge and expertise of all the people present and involved
  • Labeling: Find a suitable and creative name or label as panel might trigger some wrong expectations and old habits.


What is your favorite version of a twisted and tweaked panel of fishbowl discussion?

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