Setting up a panel
March 15, 2008 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to set up a panel for a conference many people in my field will be attending in June.

The only problem is that I've never done this before. What do I need to know/do?

I assume that I need to:

1) Determine topic
2) Determine panelists
3) Determine moderator.

I'm clueless beyond that. Is there any experience out there doing this sort of thing? What should I definitely do/avoid?

Asked anon because it's clear what I do for a living based on my user history.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this primarily an academic conference or a trade conference? If the former, you should put together a Call for Papers and send it to an appropriate listserv. (assuming a) you want to deal with reviewing proposals, and b) the conference topic is broad enough that you need your own CFP)
posted by nasreddin at 11:40 AM on March 15, 2008

I've done this before for literary conferences, and while I've had a general idea about topics and such, I usually started building a panel around the people, not the topic. I'll think of three or four people who have interesting things to say, and try to figure out if I can build a topic around what they like or are good at talking about.

How long will the panel be? Will there be a Q & A? In my experience, more than four or five people on a panel starts to get a little unwieldy in terms of time management. Four people can have a conversation - with six or more, it turns more into a multi-person lecture.

Unless you want drama, don't put people who hate each other or have notorious rivalries on a panel together. Some level of disagreement is fine - it keeps things interesting.

I'll be back as I think of more stuff.
posted by rtha at 12:34 PM on March 15, 2008

For non-academic professional conference:

Re (1) -- Topic should be timely and substantive, relate to emerging whatever in your field. Is there a theme to the conference? Topic should also relate to theme of conference. After you figure out a proposed topic, I'd check back with whoever is running the conference to see if it fits in and is okay.

Then you'll need to invite your panelists and moderator to participate. In my field people invite by email and then follow up by telephone. Lots of times people say no because of other commitments so you may have to have a list of people who would be good.

Are written materials required? If yes, you'll need to tell you panelists the deadline for materials. Lots of times people don't finish their materials by the deadline so you may need a deadline and then a secret drop-dead deadline.

You'll want to set up a conference call a couple of weeks before the panel to plan the logistics, who's talking about what, when to do questions and answers, who's doing power point, whatever.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:36 PM on March 15, 2008

Yes, three to four (plus moderator) is the max. And yes, interesting people are great, so if you know some interesting people, figure out a topic to match them. (Basically, yes to everything rtha just said.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:38 PM on March 15, 2008

Are you (as in, whatever organization is putting together the panel) going to be providing funding or reimbursement for travel, lodging and food? And if your organization will be covering those costs, is it just a reimbursement deal or are you expected to actually coordinate all the travel arrangements for the panelists?

It's much easier to put together a panel if you're not also responsible for coordinating travel. However, either way you should probably know whether your organization will provide reimbursements or a per diem (and possibly any honorarium) before you contact the panelists, so that you can include that information in your invitation. If you're not providing anything, that needs to be included--since many conferences and panels do reimburse and sometimes pay participants, don't assume that they know that there's no funding just because you didn't say there was.

If your organization will provide some funding for travel but doesn't really care if you coordinate travel, I highly recommend taking the approach of letting invited panelists know that their travel will be reimbursed (up to $XX per day, plus an honorarium or whatever), and telling them that you are happy to provide suggestions or assistance with travel if they contact you. It exponentially increases the PITA factor to be responsible for booking flights/trains/hotels for everyone, and many people prefer to do it themselves anyway, but you don't want them to be assuming that you're taking care of it if you're not (or vice versa).

Also, you'll probably want to send them some information in a package in advance of the panel (a month in advance is ideal, but at the very least a week before they arrive)--directions to the location, any instructions about what they need to save and submit for reimbursement (will you just pay them a flat amount for the day, or does your organization need receipts for reimbursements?), any background materials if applicable, an agenda for the conference, and a list of other participants at the conference (or at the very least, the bios of the other people on the panel). You should include your business card/office number as well as a way to contact you on the day of the panel if anything comes up (like they can't find the hotel or they missed their flight and will be late).

That's all I can think of--some of which may be applicable and some not, depending on what sort of conference it is. Good luck; sometimes it's a breeze to put this sort of stuff together, and sometimes it's a comedy of errors. My general advice is to do everything as far in advance as possible, and always err on the side of giving participants more information (directions, hotel recommendations, lists of good restaurants) rather than less, as that seems to be the key thing that affects their perception of how professional you, your organization and the conference are.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:24 PM on March 15, 2008

Some great advice in this thread already.

You also have to determine what type of panel it will be. What is the key deliverable? Is it discussion among the panelists, or interaction between the panel and the audience? Will they be doing formal presentations? If so, how long will each person be able to talk? If not, how will you make sure that the discussion keeps moving forward?

In my experience, the key ingredient for determining if the panel is successful is the moderator. He/she is not necessarily a good speaker, just the person who knows a lot about the subject and who can do the time management of the panel. It's also useful if that person is inquisitive and can ask questions to get the discussion started.

For the conference I plan every year, we have a moderator and usually no more than 4 speakers per panel. The moderator does a short intro on the session topic, then each speaker can do a 5-7 minute presentation (with PowerPoint if they want, or just an informal statement). The moderator keeps everyone to their timeline. Then he/she initiates a discussion among the panelists on the topic, asks leading questions, and directs the Q/A session.

We also seed the presentations in advance to some well known audience members. They will start off the Q/A with good questions, which in turn makes everyone else comfortable standing up and asking questions/adding to the discussion.
posted by gemmy at 3:41 PM on March 15, 2008

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