How to Kick Off a Successful Panel Discussion

As an entrepreneur, moderating a panel at an industry conference can be a great way to build your profile—and your network—without having to spend a ton of time to prepare as you'd typically do for a full-length presentation.

But that doesn't mean you can "wing it" and expect good results.

Without proper preparation, you might find your panel discussion going off the rails, creating a cringe-worthy experience for the audience and making the event planner (who invited you) look bad. And that type of performance won't reflect well on you or your business.

As a moderator, your job is to serve as the host, making sure "the party" goes as planned and everyone is having a good time. And that takes preparation and practice to get right.

So, how do you prepare to ensure your panel discussion gets off to a great start?

In this article, I’ll share with you a "panel intro" template I’ve developed, tested, and honed after moderating dozens of panels to help me prepare my introductory remarks. It’s designed to make the audience feel welcome, grab their interest, and set ground rules and expectations—to help make the discussion go as smoothly as possible.

Sample Intro

Below is the transcript of my introductory remarks for a panel discussion I led recently for a client.

Good morning!

Thank you so much more investing your time with us on a Saturday morning.

My name is Sean Lyden, and I am a writer for Expediters Online.

Today, we have an amazing panel on “The Future of Expedited Trucking,” where we’ll be talking about the big trends we need to keep our eyes on that could directly impact your business.

But before we dive into the panel introductions, I want to take the temperature of the room.

(Show of hands) How many of you drive for owners?

How many of you are owner-operators?

How many of you are fleet owners?

How many of you are completely new to this industry and are here to explore whether this business is a good fit before you take the plunge?

How many of you work for a trucking carrier or other types of companies that provide products or services to support this industry?

That’s awesome—thank you!

Our goal today is that whatever your role is in this industry, that you will come away with something—a new idea, a fresh perspective, a new strategy—that you can apply to be more successful in your business.

So the format to give you an idea of what to expect …

  • We’ll take a few moments for each of the panelists to briefly introduce themselves and tell a little bit about their background in the industry.

  • I’ll kick off the conversation, asking questions that draw out some of the high-level themes and trends we should be thinking about.

  • And, then, the second half of our time today, we’ll open up the floor to give you an opportunity to ask specific questions that you’ve been thinking about to help you navigate the upcoming opportunities and challenges to be more successful in your business.

Sound good?

Great! Let’s get started with the panel introductions.

Breaking It All Down

Okay. So now we’re going to break down this intro into eight components. This way, you can understand the “Why” behind each component, giving you insight into how you can adapt and modify the template to better suit your style and subject matter.

#1. Greeting

Good morning!

This simple greeting helps you gauge the energy level in the room. If you say "Good morning!" but the audience doesn’t respond with much energy, you’ll know that you’ll need to work harder to change the dynamic. Sometimes, it’s helpful to pause and acknowledge an audience’s quiet demeanor in a lighthearted way that puts them at ease and gets them into a more receptive state of mind.

But, more often than not, your audience will reflect your energy. So when you give your initial greeting, BRING IT!

#2. Gratitude

Thank you so much for investing your time with us this Saturday morning.

There are a lot of options for your audience to spend their time. Tell them upfront how much you appreciate them. Without an audience, you don't have a panel discussion. You're there to serve them and make sure they have the best experience possible.

#3. Introduction

My name is Sean Lyden, and I am a writer for Expediters Online.

Notice that I say very little about myself, and that’s by design.

But wait! You’re thinking. Isn’t this the time we should be giving our full elevator pitch? After all, I’m doing this to build my profile, right?

Yes. But my experience is that you will do a much better job of building your profile by leading an engaging discussion that the audience raves about. Period.

And that means that you should say just enough to establish who you are and why your qualified to lead the panel—in this case, I serve as a writer who covers the expedited trucking industry. Then GET OUT OF THE WAY!

#4. Preview

Today, we have an amazing panel on “The Future of Expedited Trucking,” where we’ll be talking about the big trends we need to keep our eyes on that could directly impact your business.

This is where you tease the topic and set the expectation that the audience is going to learn something new that could make them more successful—or whatever value proposition the panel discussion will bring to your audience.

#5. “Temperature"

But before we dive into the panel introductions, I want to take the temperature of the room.

(Show of hands) How many of you drive for owners?

How many of you are owner-operators?

How many of you are fleet owners?

How many of you are completely new to this industry and are here to explore whether this business is a good fit before you take the plunge?

How many of you work for a trucking carrier or other types of companies that provide products or services to support this industry?

That’s awesome—thank you!

The idea here is to learn more about your audience. This way, you gain the insight you need to tailor the questions to make the discussion relevant to as many people as possible.

#6. Purpose

Our goal today is that whatever your role is in the industry, that you will come away with something—a new idea, a fresh perspective, a new strategy—that you can apply to be more successful in your business.

Once you’ve taken the temperature of the room, you want to reconnect your audience to the purpose as to why they’re attending the panel: to come away with something new that they can apply.

#7. Expectation

So here’s the format to give you an idea of what to expect:

  • We’ll take a few moments for each of the panelists to briefly introduce themselves and tell a little bit about their background in the industry.

  • I’ll kick off the conversation, asking questions that draw out some of the high-level themes and trends we should be thinking about.

  • And, then, the second half of our time today, we’ll open up the floor to give you an opportunity to ask specific questions that you’ve been thinking about to help you navigate the upcoming opportunities and challenges to be more successful in your business.

This part is critical. Panel discussions typically go off the rails when the moderator doesn’t establish the expectations and ground rules upfront.

Now, you may want to dive right into audience questions after the intro—and that’s fine. But make sure the audience knows that’s okay.

The reason I usually prefer to control the questions for the first half of the discussion is so that I can make sure that we cover the most critical items that the audience is there to learn. Then we can open the floor for audience questions and go with the flow for the remainder of the time. Otherwise, if you go to the open Q&A too soon, you'll lose control over the direction of the conversation very quickly, and the audience may not get what they came there for.

#8. Permission

Sound good?

Great! Let’s get started with the panel introductions.

This is a subtle, but powerful way to transition to the main event. That’s because by gaining permission to proceed, you’ve taken one more step to build rapport with your audience and demonstrate that you’re humbled and grateful for their time and attention.

The Template

Now, let’s turn this into a generic template that you can adapt to your style and subject matter.

Good morning!

Thank you so much for investing your time with us on a [insert day] [morning/afternoon/evening].

My name is [insert name], and I am a/the [role] for [organization].

Today, we have an amazing [fantastic or whatever adjective]] panel on "[insert topic]," where we'll be talking about [insert high-level value proposition for the audience].

But before we dive into the panel introductions, I want to take the temperature of the room.

(Show of hands) How many of you are [insert distinguishing factor]?

[Ask as many of these questions as relevant to your situation.]

[After asking the “temperature” questions…] That’s awesome—thank you!

Our goal today is that whatever your role is in this industry [or whatever demographic], that you will come away with something—a new idea, a fresh perspective, a new strategy—that you can apply to be more successful in your business [or career or whatever it is they want to be more successful in].

So the format to give you an idea of what to expect …

  • We’ll take a few moments for each of the panelists to briefly introduce themselves and tell a little bit about their background in the industry.

  • I’ll kick off the conversation, asking questions that draw out some of the high-level themes and ideas we should be thinking about.

  • And, then, the second half of our time today, we’ll open up the floor to give you an opportunity to ask specific questions that you’ve been thinking about to help you navigate the upcoming opportunities and challenges to be more successful in your business [or career or whatever it is they want to be more successful in].

Sound good?

Great! Let’s get started with the panel introductions.

The Bottom Line

This two-minute intro helps prime the audience to get the most out of your session. And when the audience is happy, so are the panelists and the event planner—which, in turn, raises your profile in the industry.

Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tap into the power of story to grow their business.

If you'd like to learn how to build up your story muscles, then join me on this journey to becoming a stronger communicator by subscribing below to receive my best posts sent to your inbox.

And you can also connect with me directly via email at sean@lydencommunications.com.