By Mary Gabb ([email protected])

As health economics plays a more prominent role in medical research and public policy, participation in panel discussions – either in front of a live audience or behind closed doors – is becoming part of the job description.

Done well, panel discussions can provide important insights into a topic and can allow the audience to interact with experts with whom they might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. Done poorly, panel discussions can either devolve into chaotic ponderings or become yet another exercise in didactic drudgery. Here are a few tips on how panel discussions should be held.

If you are a member of a panel:

  • Determine the purpose of the panel. Is the purpose to make experts available to audience members (so questions should come primarily from the audience)? To stimulate discussion with provocative ideas? To serve as a point-counterpoint discussion? To arrive at a consensus on a topic?
  • Know what is expected of you. Too often, panellists arrive with a full slide set, ready to give their standard presentation. Will you be expected to show slides? If so, how many? Are you expected to make opening remarks?
  • Know your fellow panel members. Find out who else will be on the panel, and what expertise they bring, to avoid any surprises.

If you are leading a panel:

  • Choose panel members who can effectively think and speak off the cuff. Even though it is not a formal format, good presentation skills are still necessary.
  • Prepare your team. Ensure every panellist understands the format – the number of slides to bring (if any), questions they might need to prepare, key discussion points to cover.
  • Prepare yourself. Bring your own questions, in case the audience is reticent.
  • Guide the audience. Introduce each panellist (more on introductions below) and describe the discussion format. Repeat each audience question and call upon a specific panel member to answer it.
  • Stay on message. If taking questions from the audience, discern between appropriate and inappropriate/unrelated questions.

A good panel discussion depends as much if not more on the panel leader than the panel members. The key is to find a panel leader who is willing and able to exert control.

Finally, public speaking is not only about you as a presenter. If you are asked to introduce a speaker:

  • Do your homework. Try to obtain from the speaker directly what he or she would like to have said about them. Not all of the information on a person’s CV is relevant.
  • Personalise it. Chances are you’ve been asked to introduce the speaker for a specific reason. Try to share with the audience your relationship to the speaker, perhaps sharing a personal story.
  • Stay at the podium. Too often we see the host desert the podium before the speaker arrives. It is your responsibility to greet the speaker at the podium, especially as the speaker is there at your invitation. Once the speaker arrives at the podium, shake the speaker’s hand and then step away.