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How to run a panel session

Panel sessions, where a group of people are involved in a single discussion, can nicely complement sessions with individual speakers. Panel sessions allow contrasts and comparisons to be made on a specific theme or topic between individuals with different views and perspectives. Panel sessions can work effectively with a range of speaker types, such as former postdocs, employers, recruiters, senior members of university staff or any other stakeholders of interest to postdocs.

During the development of Prosper, several panel sessions were convened, particularly with employers, on a range of themes including (but not limited to) policy, project management and recruitment. Here, we provide some tips on how to run a panel session and give some examples from Prosper.

Why run a panel session?

A panel session can be an effective way to engage a postdoc audience in career development. Hearing insights from experts on a panel can help postdocs in their own decision-making process.

Some of the advantages of running a panel session are:

  • Showcasing different viewpoints by bringing together individuals with a range of perspectives on the topic being discussed. These discussions can provide the audience with a broader understanding of the area or topic.
  • Panel members can engage with each other as well as the audience. This provides an extra dimension because they can question and expand on each other’s points.
  • Panel sessions can readily fit into larger institutional events (such as postdoc conferences) because they can attract more people. The breadth of speakers is often mirrored in the audience attracted to attend.
  • Maximises the number of speakers and insights you can feature if you’ve only got capacity to run a small number of events for your postdocs.

As well as these advantages, there can be some challenges to running panel sessions.

  • Fixing a time, date and location can take a little more organisation than for events with only one speaker. The more speakers you invite to be part of your panel, the more competing diaries you have to accommodate!
  • If you run the panel session in-person you may need to consider the geographical locations of the speakers you invite. You may need to factor in travel and accommodation costs alongside the usual considerations (room booking, accessibility, refreshments, directions and so on).
  • Getting to hear from all panellist equally can require careful facilitation of the session. We suggest a maximum of five people on a panel for a one-hour session.
  • The question and answer part of the session needs similarly attentive facilitation to ensure a range of audience questions are heard. It’s also important to vary the order in which the panel members answer.

Themes for panel sessions

You have the option to run panel sessions around a broad theme, with a panel selected to be able to give a diverse range of insights. For example, if all of your panel members are former postdocs, asking them about their professional journey may illicit some similarities and differences.

Alternatively, you could have a narrower focus around a specific topic. This could range from things like focusing on a particular employment sector, a specific skill or the mechanics of getting a job (understanding how employers recruit).

Inviting panel members

Identifying and inviting people to participate in a panel session requires a fair amount of organisation and preparation. Once you have chosen a theme or topic, you need to reach out to potential candidates to sit on the panel. You can target specific people using your own contacts, contacts that your institution has and even contacts of postdocs who are keen to run these types of events. If your postdoc audience is quite diverse in terms of discipline, it helps if you have panel members that reflect this.

We recommend a panel with a maximum of four or five members. Any more than this and it can become difficult to facilitate and make sure everyone has sufficient time to speak. For four or five panel members, a one-hour session should be sufficient, but one and a half hours allows more depth, time for discussion and questions from the audience.

Send an initial email (see example email communications templates) to potential panel members at least two months in advance. If the person is not familiar with who you are, your organisation or the particular activity, then provide them with a brief background. Detail what the panel session will be about and why you are interested in having them speak at it. Inform them that it will be with postdocs at your institution in the month of your choosing and whether it will be in-person or online. Provide them with a few dates and times to select from.

For those who’ve declined your invite send an email (see example email communication templates) to thank them for considering it. Ask if they are interested in being invited to similar events or other opportunities in future.

Panellist practicalities – ahead of the event

Once your panellists have accepted, send an email (see example email communications templates) confirming the date and appending a calendar invite. If it will be in-person, include information about location, directions, access, reimbursing travel expenses and anything else specific to your institution. If it’s a virtual session, provide details of the online platform and login information.

Provide some more details of the structure of the panel session, how it will be facilitated and perhaps some points for the panellists to consider in advance. Ask the panellists to arrive ten minutes early to be briefed on the plans for the session.

Ask the panel members for a short biography about who they are, their professional experience and current organisation. Alternatively, you can draft a biography and ask each panellist to approve or amend it, for advertising the session. If you plan to record the session for on-demand access at your institution, tell the panellist how you’ll use it and for their expressed permission via an institutional GDPR form.

Send a reminder email (see example email communication templates) to the confirmed panel members one or two weeks in advance of the session. Re-iterate the key information, say that you’re looking forward to welcoming them and to let you know if they can no longer make the date.

Venue practicalities

If you’ve chosen to run the panel session in-person, you need to make sure a room is booked and, if necessary, any refreshments ordered. Book the room for half an hour either side of the session for any unforeseen circumstances. Depending on the size of the room and audience, you might need to provide microphones and any audio-visual equipment (if required for display or recording). Name tags might be useful if there are any follow-up networking opportunities.

Virtual session practicalities

If you are delivering your panel session using an online platform, consider the settings of the meeting carefully. You might want to mute all participants automatically upon entry and ask them to unmute to make contributions. If you use Zoom you may even wish to consider using a webinar format, if this available to you (the audience have no option to unmute or share their video but it has a nice Q&A function that allows questions to be up-voted by participants).  

If you would like more audience participation, you might want to make a poll or two around the topic of interest. Or you might even want to set breakout rooms in advance if you would like to incorporate more discussion between members of the audience.

If you wish to record the session, you may want to say the following at the start of the event:

‘This session will be recorded so that postdocs that are unable to join can access it on-demand. If you do not wish to appear on camera or your voice heard in the recording, please switch off your camera and stay on mute. You can still comment, and ask questions in the chat. For the recording, could everyone keep themselves on mute unless asked to unmute to ask a question’.

Advertising the panel session to postdocs

Aim to advertise the panel session as soon as you’ve had your panellist confirm their attendance. Ideally, start advertising the session to your postdocs at least one month before the panel session. You can advertise to postdocs at your institution using internal communications, flyers and direct emails. Include the key information about date/time/location/format but also include the biographies of each of the panel members.

If you wish, or need, to keep track of attendees (for example if you’re running it in person and have a fixed audience size), ask them to register for the event. You can use on online tool such as Eventbrite. You might need to send a few event reminders up to the date of the session.

Structure and timetable of a panel session

We’d suggest a session duration of 60 to 90 minutes.

Building in time for audience questions works well, you can either do this at a couple of points throughout the session or just as the end of session (ensuring you’ve left sufficient time for this).

For a 60-minute long panel session we’d suggest a schedule something like:

  • 10 mins before the session starts (no audience present yet) – brief the panellist and answer any queries
  • Welcome to session, housekeeping. 5 min.
  • Panellists introduction including verbal biography on theme of session. 5 to 7 mins per panellist.
  • Q & A. 30 mins.
  • Summary, thank panellist and audience, close. 5 mins.

As a rule of thumb for a 90-minute-long panel session we’d suggest the schedule to run something like:

  • 10 mins before the session starts (no audience present yet) – brief the panellist and answer any queries
  • Welcome and Introductions. 10 mins. (Panellist introductions max. 2 mins per panel member).
  • Poll question 1 to audience (max. 5 mins), Ask panel four questions on topic 1 (max. 5 mins per question), take any audience questions. 25 mins.
  • Poll question 2 to audience (max. 5 mins), Ask panel four questions on topic 2 (max. 5 mins per question), take any audience questions. 25 mins.
  • Break – 5 mins.
  • Poll question 3 to audience (max. 5 mins), Ask panel three questions on topic 3 (max. 5 mins per question), take any audience questions. 20 mins.
  • Summary, thank panellist and audience, close. 5 mins.

Facilitating the session

We suggest having two facilitators in the session (whether online or in-person) to assist with triaging the audience’s questions.

If your session is online your second facilitator can help group questions with a similar theme together and read them out (if being submitted via a written format) or highlight the order in which audience members are waiting to ask their questions verbally/order in which they raised their hands. They can also handle any technical difficulties, admit people from the waiting room or control moving people into breakouts (if you’re using these).

If in-person the second facilitator can be the ‘roving microphone’ ensuring everyone in the audience, as well as the panel, clearly hear the question.

As the chair (or first facilitator) once the question has been asked you can direct the order in which the panel members respond. If the question is addressed to a single member of the panel once they’ve answered, if you deem it appropriate you can invite the other panellist to add their thoughts.

The second facilitator can also ask the first question to the panel. This can be helpful if the audience are hesitant/slow/shy in putting forth their questions.

Both facilitators can be time keepers and be mindful of when there is only time for the final question. If doing this online the second facilitator can pick a short or short to answer question to ensure the session end on time.

After the session

In the few days following the panel session, send a thank you email (see example communication templates) to the panellists to say how valuable their contribution is to postdocs. Say that you will keep them informed of any future speaking opportunities at your institution if they are interested.

You may also wish send a feedback form to registered attendees to get their views on the session and perhaps any topic, speaker or theme they’d like to see in the future.

Recommendations

  • Aim for a panel of around four to five speakers for a 60-minute session.
  • Contact possible panellists at least two months before you wish to hold the session.
  • Send a reminder email to the confirmed panel members one or two weeks in advance of the session.
  • Ask the panellists to arrive ten minutes early to be briefed on the plans for the session.
  • Ask the panel members to provide a short biography about who they are, their professional experience and current organisation that you can use in advertising the session to your postdocs.
  • Aim to advertise the session at least one month before it’s due to run (or when you’ve had your panellists confirm, whichever gives the longest time ahead of the session).
  • Facilitate the session clearly and carefully, ensuring all panellist get a fair chance to talk and the audience’s questions get covered.
  • Virtual panel sessions are typically easier to organise when inviting multiple external panellists (as their time commitment is much smaller), however you may lose some of the atmosphere of an in-person event. 
  • Expect one of the panel members to drop-out. Panels work fine with three to four panellists. If you want to be prepared have a close-colleague (who understands this type of situation) as a standby panellist who can add useful insights into the discussion.
  • Brief the panellists well in advance what the topic, structure of the session and what you expect from them is. You can also pre-warn them of how the session will be facilitated.
  • We suggest these sessions have a Q&A as an integral part of the session.
  • We recommend having two facilitators in the session (whether online or in-person) to assist with triaging the audience’s questions.

Example email communication templates

The following emails were sent to stakeholders (mainly employers) before and after running a panel session. They are provided as examples that you can use and adapt to fit you.

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