Skip to main content

For events, look beyond the panel

February 1, 2018 | Ebony Johnson, IAH Events Coordinator

Going beyond the panel events: Audience members love to engageFor more than 11 years, I have had the pleasure of working with faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, sponsors, and non-profit organizations to plan and execute myriad events and programs. Through these experiences, I have watched people make the same mistake. Each hoping to fill more seats with their panel discussion than the group who held a panel discussion two days ago. As we strive to increase awareness about topics and our organizations, we must remember the importance of creating a unique learning environment.

Years ago, I worked with a visionary to develop an event to increase awareness about women’s issues. Traditionally, her organization held a panel discussion or brought in well-known lecturers to discuss these issues. She noticed that attendance, for events discussing cultural differences, educational topics, societal issues, and current affairs, had declined.  As an organization, they were looking for a way to fill seats and stay relevant on campus. After a little research, I found that the majority of campus organizations were hosting the same types of events. Most of these events lacked interactive activities, outside of the traditional Q&A format, or had low attendance, unless a celebrity or public figure was involved. The key to staying relevant is being creative, so I challenged her to do something different.

I found a presenter who was passionate, accommodating, a dynamic speaker, and most importantly, she was willing to work with our team to build the session.

During her presentation, she incorporated her knowledge of the organization and their traditions, thus educating the audience. According to the data from surveys, it was a success! Guests used words like “different,” “unique,” “interactive,” and “relevant.” Compared to similar events in recent years, attendance doubled.

Panel, tried and true

I have learned that it is hard to fill seats when you keep doing the same old thing. If I am responsible for an event, from conception to execution, I try to stay away from panel discussions unless it is compelling. For the record, I’m not saying that panel discussions don’t work. I am saying that sometimes they get old, and they are not as interactive as other possibilities. If a panel is the way to go, I aim to do things to make their panel discussion slightly different from others. For example, I research panelists and speakers used locally for past events to avoid the panel discussion celebrity. This is a person that is serving on a panel so often it seems they are locally on tour. And I get it. Peers like them and the community loves them. A friend said it best, though: “When I see the same panelist at different events, I have the same thought. Either this person is an expert of all things or the organizations are all discussing the same stuff.”

Intention is everything

Events serve as a form of communication. It is important to have more than a theme. We must have the “why,” according to author Simon Sinek (See IAH Director of Operations Tommie Watson’s piece using the same framework for building a team). Personally, I like my events to say, “We appreciate the minds and ideas of our guests, invite relatable and motivating experts, and provide spaces to create innovative solutions to issues.” Events are a reflection of organizational beliefs and practices. What are your events saying about your organization?

Here are three 3 jewels to help your organization increase awareness, engage attendees, and meet expected outcomes.

1. Lunch and Learn Event 

Lunch and Learn events are great for groups of 5-20. Guest speakers share a “sneak peek” of upcoming books and/or other creative works with attendees. They also provide insight about their industry. I absolutely love these events because everybody wins! The guest speaker has an opportunity to increase awareness about their project, receive valuable suggestions and feedback from the group, and connect with faculty/staff who are genuinely interested in their work. Guests truly feel connected to the event. They have an opportunity to provide feedback, make recommendations, and engage in healthy dialogue with the guest speaker and other attendees. In the end, you have created an experience that was unforgettable… scholars, relevant discussions, interactive activities, great food, and a good time!  To retain audience members, include them in the discussion.

2. Room Set-Up: One BIG Circle

Instead of separating the panel from the audience, connect both groups! Create a circle. Strategically place several speakers within the circle. When guests arrive, they will fill in the empty seats. This set-up will make guests feel closer to the speaker(s), creating a feeling of inclusiveness and increasing interactions.

3. Incorporate Live Presentations 

In the past, I have asked lecturers and public figures to incorporate samples of their work during their talk or presentation. For example, if we book an author, I ask them to read and discuss excerpts from their book. If we book an artist, I have them incorporate pieces in the discussion or presentation. If our guest is a singer, dancer, or poet, I request a short performance. Enhance the experience and give the audience something they will connect with, while keeping the discussion relevant. They will keep coming back.