creative alternatives for panels
Events Leadership

The Event Manager’s Guide to Creative Alternatives for Panels

We’re awash in a sea of events. More than 60 million registered users are organizing, attending and finding events on Eventbrite offered tickets to more than five million events last year. There are more than 98,000 event planning organizations in the US, with many holding monthly events.

A tired format

A substantial number of these events are speaker or panel-driven. In many a conference, a group of experts sits onstage and discuss a given topic for an hour (or more). They answer a few questions from the audience and then are replaced by another panel. Another topic might be discussed, and the process is repeated.

The panel is the beloved refuge of event managers and speakers alike. Choose a group of industry experts, throw them onstage with a moderator, and you’re good to go. Perhaps there is a pre-panel conference call where the panelists agree on a format and toss around a few questions. Rarely is there more than minimal preparation.

However, panels have the potential to be powerful: you can easily hear many voices and perspectives in one place. They offer additional speakers a way to get on stage, gain speaking experience and tell their story. Participating in panels leads to valuable connections with other influencers and experts. This can extend beyond the stage and even include the audience. Panels also offer a way to hear ideas discussed, not just mentioned.

What can you do to liven up your event? We’ve gathered some ideas for creative alternatives for panels, categorized them and created this guide for you. It’s designed to offer inspiration for event managers, event coordinators, moderators and panelists who are tired of the same old format.

This guide includes:

  • Basic panel formats.
  • Moderator options.
  • Options for questions and comments.
  • Ways to break up a panel.
  • Panel housekeeping tips.
  • Creative options for panelists.
  • Different panel options.
  • Panel alternatives.
  • Individual presenters.
  • Options for two or more presenters.

Let’s start with the panel itself. Here’s a list of mix-and-match options for in-person panels.

Basic panel format options:

  • The Classic – panel with a moderator.
  • The Unruly Classic – panel without a moderator.
  • The Roundtable – a panel with even less structure. Usually more interaction between the participants than the traditional panel.
  • Debate, face-off or point/counterpoint – split the panel into opposing camps to argue different points of view.
  • Co-presenters – actually more of a presentation but with two or more speakers.

What are the options for your moderator?

  • Seated or standing at a podium, on the stage with the panelists.
  • Oprah-style (or Phil Donahue if you were a 70s TV-watcher) – where the moderator roams the room with a mic to solicit comments and feedback from the audience.
  • Moderator as a panelist – sometimes a moderator can also provide input and be a panelist.
  • Levels of control vary – some moderators will actively control a panel. They might cut off panelists if they go too long, let someone finish if they are interrupted and others let things roll. You can even have an absent moderator who sets up the panel, manages the pre-event call and planning, and then doesn’t (by accident or design) appear onstage.

Panel add-ons, questions and audience comments

The basic panel is a moderator and a row of talking heads. Most will take questions or comments from the audience (either during the panel or at the end). There are a number of options you can use here.

  • Pre-panel – It might be during the registration process or by soliciting questions in the room before the panel starts. You can get questions from your audience before the panel begins. You can ask people on X/Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn. Some conferences and events use apps that allow you to ask the audience what questions they would like answered. To get a little more creative, pass a basket with index cards through the audience and ask them for questions. Perhaps try a fishbowl at the entrance to collect questions, and the moderator can randomly draw them.
  • As you kick-off – it’s not uncommon to informally survey an audience at the beginning of a panel. “Who here is an entrepreneur?” “Who wants to become one?” Learn a little about the composition of your audience to help drive your panel’s focus. You can always ask for questions up-front, like, “What do you want to learn today?”
  • Mid-panel – You can stop the panel part-way through and ask the audience for questions (check-in), or allow audience members to break in during the discussion. Monitoring social media for questions will usually require assistance, or a large screen set up to monitor the social media stream.
  • After the panel concludes – Once the majority of the talk is done, the most common format is to have the moderator ask the audience for questions. Here’s a helpful hint: you may need to “plant” questions in the audience to get the ball rolling. You can accomplish this before the panel starts by asking an audience member if they could prepare a question to ask. You can even discuss said question with them. You can also ask guests to tell you why they are “here” before the panel starts. If they have a question they are looking for the answer to, it’s great to suggest they ask it during the question period. As a moderator, it’s always good to have a few extra questions in your back pocket in case your audience is shy.
  • Another option is to promote an entire panel session as a Q&A – the audience should come in prepared to provide the questions.
  • Just for fun questions: Plan to ask a question “just for fun” (better to warn the panelists). A JFF question could take the form of “two truths and a lie”, or “tell us about your outside-of-work passion” or the ever-popular “tell us something most people don’t know about you.” These questions help warm up both the panel and the audience, and often inject some humor into the panel. (Ed. note: HUMOR IS OFTEN IMPORTANT TO LIVELY PANELS.)
  • Attendees write a question or topic on a piece of paper along with their name and place it in a bowl. Once all the questions are collected, the panelists randomly select a question. The person who wrote it then goes on stage to join the discussion. Time each topic and move on to another after an allotted amount.

Ways to break up a panel

Sometimes, it’s great to break up your panel, whether it is a part one and a part two with different topics, or a snack break. You can split a panel up into pieces to keep your audience engaged over a longer period of time. Exercises, feedback, questions, or comments are great alternatives to bog-standard panels.

Lisa Sasso runs events for people in the medical device industry. In the past, she solicited “special guests” to come up front and add commentary during the panel discussion. Her process for managing this is simple. She asks these guests to provide her with a description of their advice, and their name and title on an index card.  She collects the index cards and pulls them out to call upon the guests over the course of the event.

Networking exercises can also provide a good break. Encourage guests to greet their neighbors and introduce themselves.

Panel housekeeping

When you have your preparation call, take the time to run through some rules for the panel so everyone knows what to expect. These “rules” can often be a source of creative alternatives for better panels.

  • If the audience has easy access to the speakers’ biographies and background, it won’t be necessary to use up conference time in deep introductions. Name, title, organization and a quick intro should suffice.
  • Bypass the biography with creative introductions:
    • Two truths & a lie
    • 140 character introduction
    • Skip bios and have everyone provide a prediction
  • How long should opening remarks be? Closing remarks?
  • Is there a time limit on answers and how should the speaker get signaled when their time is up?
  • Are there any topics off-limits?
  • “Selling from the stage.” While we all know that speaking engagements are important marketing opportunities, the audience is there for knowledge, not to hear a sales pitch. State this upfront… just in case.
  • Are there specific roles to be played by each panelist?
  • Will there be slides while the group or individuals are talking? These can be as simple as a single slide with the names, photos and company names of each panelist. (Add social media links for increased interaction.)
  • How to avoid “What they said” where everyone agrees… and is boring about it. Come up with a method that allows people to easily indicate they agree with one another.

Different ideas for panelists 

As you consider creative ideas for your panels, you might want to start with creative options for the panelists. We recently asked our network for suggestions.

  • How about kids? Or teens, or students? A young person’s perspective on the topic may be totally different than an adult’s. Add a “newbie” – have someone new to the topic, or a student on the panel to act as the “everyman moderator” or interviewer.
  • You can use a gameshow format with the emcee as the host.
  • Will Brierly created a character that was controlled by artificial intelligence that moderated a panel. He says, “It was definitely a wacky experience because none of us knew what he was going to say.”
  • How about a “virtual presence”? Have a remote panelist participate via Skype or phone. (Double-check your tech first!)

Here are some alternatives for panels

  • There are many formats and options for so-called open panels, where audience members either are or can join the panelists in the discussion by taking their place on an empty chair. Like a grownup version of musical chairs, the “guest” panelists stay until they are replaced by another audience member or there can be a timer set. We also heard about the “Open Fishbowl” option, where four chairs are placed in the center of a room, and only three can be occupied at any time.
  • Another setup, particularly conducive to roundtable discussions, is the double ring of chairs, where only the inner ring speaks but the outer ring can “tap in” to join the discussion.
  • Games and gameshows make for great inspiration for creative panel formats – everything from Mad Libs to Cards Against Humanity (PG13 or R-rated) to classic TV gameshow “buzzer” races to answer specific questions.
  • Give each panelist a paddle with “like” and “dislike” sides and read a series of statements to get their reactions. (Or, use emojis or icons.)
  • Creative inspiration? How about poetry slams, rap battles or questions in Haiku?
  • The Panel Breakdown – split both the panelists and the audience into an equal number of groups (4 panelists/4 groups) for smaller group conversations. Time the discussions and rotate the panelists so each one gets to talk to each group.
  • PowerPoint Karaoke or, conversely, prohibit slides.
  • Panelists ask each other questions.
  • Each panelist takes a portion of the topic and focuses their answers on that portion of the topic.
  • Add a surprise “mystery” panelist or “extra” moderator to enliven the conversation.

Alternatives to panels: The best events offer information through a combination of different types of presentations. You can offer workshops, fireside chats, interviews, “lightning talks”, demonstrations, cohort or “Birds of a feather” discussions, Q&A, classes, panel discussions, round tables and participatory exercises.

Individual presentations

There are many, many different options for individual speakers and presenters. Here are just a few:

  • Traditional conference presentation: a speaker with slides
  • Perhaps a better option? (Showing our bias.) A speaker without slides
  • Demonstration
  • PechaKucha (Japanese for chit-chat) is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total). The format keeps presentations concise and fast-paced.
  • The Ignite format – each speaker gets five minutes and must use 20 slides with each slide advancing automatically after 15 seconds.
  • Problem-solving workshop where the presenter leads a brainstorming session
  • TEDTalk

Other options for two or more presenters:

  • Workshop
  • Collaborative problem solving (pose questions to audience and breakout to solve problems)
  • Fireside chat/interview
  • “Conversation” where two presenters ask each other questions and the audience listens in.
  • The translator game where one presenter presents in industry jargon and the other “translates” for a more general audience.

Not every option will work for every subject, or with every speaker. (Ed. Note: Please don’t ask me to rap, or sing.) And this list is far from complete. Feel free to add your suggestions and share interesting options you’ve seen.

P.S. As we were gathering ideas from our network, one person responded to our query for creative panel alternatives with the sarcastic, “Six white middle-aged men from Connecticut talking about themselves.” Yes, in the end, the best panels tend to have diverse makeup and perspective. Make your panel presentations awesome… and diverse.

Are you planning a virtual panel? You’ll want to read about Our Best Virtual Event and Networking Platforms.

Editor’s note: this article was originally published by our sister company, Innovation Women. Check it out and discover more creative alternatives for panels!

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