Rev-up your Roundtable!

Tips and Techniques for Holding Panel Discussions in a Virtual World

Recently, I was contacted by a friend, a professional reporter, who had been given the opportunity to co-host an online roundtable discussion. The number of viewers were impressive (140k+) – the production quality of the event was not. With more and more viewers bound to tune in, she reached out to me for assistance, and with a quick review and one feedback/coaching session, I was able to improve the look and the structure exponentially.

In our virtual broadcasting world, even professionally-trained TV personalities are challenged. They’ve been trained to read a prompter, follow a formulaic structure, and one of the key aspects to any good live broadcast, to banter. Bantering is, simply put, casual and engaging conversation with a co-host. It’s a skill, even when your co-host is in the room with you. It’s a whole different animal when your co-host is in a Brady-Bunch-like square on your screen, possibly with a slight delay.

Whether it’s a roundtable discussion with a panel of experts, or a team meeting, there are certain things you can to do make it a more visually-appealing, organized, engaging discussion.

Limit the number of panelists on the screen, and require that their cameras are on.

While most of the platforms available can accommodate many more participants, visually it’s best to have no more than six. This allows for everyone to have decent screen size, and avoids the postage-stamp images that resulted from an overcrowded lineup. No blank boxes, please! No video? No panelist.

Provide the panelists with guidelines to follow regarding framing, lighting, and sound.

One of the easiest ways of improving production quality is to have a consistent look in every square on the screen. Your panelists should be instructed to be framed from the chest up, so that their faces appear similar in size. They should also be well-lit, with a non-distracting background.

Avoid random panelist/ host positioning.

With some technical assistance, you can strategically place your participants where you want them. The roundtable I tuned into had co-hosts, but you would never have known it by watching. There were six panelist squares, and one co-host was at the far left, and the other was randomly placed in the lower row. By simply positioning the co-hosts on the top row, and the four guests below, it was a clear who was leading the discussion and who were the “guests.”

Set the tone and define objectives

It’s important that the viewers understand at the onset what they can expect- and this will help your panelists as well. Introduce yourself, and your co-host or team members, tell them why you’re there, and give them an overview of expected length of event, whether or not viewers can comment live, and introduce your panelists with enthusiasm.

Be specific when guiding conversation.

Even in a non-virtual situation, most moderators make the mistake of simply introducing their panelists, and throwing out a question to the group. The result? Everyone hesitates, not sure of who should speak. A good moderator will direct the question to a specific person. “We’ve all experienced challenges while working from home. Karen, what’s been the most challenging thing for you?”

Encourage participation and engagement.

As the host, it’s your job to not only guide the conversation, but to manage engagement. Be aware of the panelist’s reactions, and encourage them to jump in. “Mark, you’re nodding, you’re in agreement with what she’s saying?” If you notice someone has been quiet, direct your next question to that person.

Wrap up with clarity, conviction and resources.

When you feel the time is right, let viewers know that you’re nearing the end of the discussion. Summarize what’s been discussed, thank the panelists, and let the viewer know what to do next. Join you again next week? Check out your company website/blog for updates? Follow the panelists on social? Have a graphic fill the screen with panelists names and social info, contact info, whatever information you want to reinforce.


Remember, just because these meetings and discussions are happening online, it doesn’t mean they can’t be effective – in fact, without the added burden of driving, parking, having to physically get to a location, participation can often increase due to the virtual nature of your event. The more polished, the more organized, the less strange all this will feel. The more confidence your hosts and moderators project, the more engaging the conversation.

Some of us are very comfortable on-camera, while others are not. If you are faced with leading online discussions and events and it causes some discomfort – realize there are classes and coaching available to help you overcome these challenges. More and more companies are now enlisting media trainers to provide classes that offer quick tips and adjustments to increase your “on-camera” comfort and confidence – and there are tutorials online. Our current reality is forcing us all to learn new skills – but the beauty is that learning how to successfully navigate this new way of communicating will only make us stronger and more-equipped when we return to business as usual – whatever that may be.