Guide for Discussion Leaders
A panel consists of a small group of six or eight persons, who carry on a guided and informal discussion before an audience as if the panel were meeting alone. The proceedings of the panel should be the same as those described for informal discussion: volunteering of facts, asking questions, stating opinions-all expressed with geniality, with respect for the contributions of other members, without speech making, and without making invidious personal references. This primary function should occupy approximately two-thirds of the allotted time-say forty minutes of an hour’s meeting. The secondary function of the panel is to answer questions from the audience. This discussion method is suitable for use when a relatively large audience is anticipated. The disadvantage of the method is that it confines most of the discussion to the panel itself. The audience listens and is given a chance to ask questions, but for the most part is passive and receptive.
Panel discussions, if well conducted, are usually more interesting to the audience than is the single-speaker forum. They provide sufficiently varied clash of opinion and presentation of facts to give even the quiet members of the audience a feeling of vicarious participation.
Quality and tasks of leadership in panel discussion are similar to those described for informal discussion. The leader must in addition take special care to select panel members who can think and speak effectively. He must also be sure that they prepare themselves to discuss the subject. During the discussion by the panel the leader has substantially the same duties as in informal discussion except that he should keep himself more in the background as chairman of the panel. He can do so because each member of the panel is in reality an assistant to the leader and is responsible for specific contributions to the proceedings.
When the subject is thrown open to the house, it is the leader’s job to recognize appropriate questions and to reject those not bearing on the subject or involving personalities. Some questions he may answer himself, but usually he should repeat the question and call upon one of the panel to answer it. By preliminary announcement the leader may also tell the audience that they may direct questions at particular members of the panel if they choose. In any case, during the question period the leader needs to maintain strict control. On many occasions this may be the toughest part of his assignment to carry off efficiently and with good humor.
While it is customary to confine audience questions to a specific period, some leaders permit questions from the floor at any time. Unless very carefully limited by the leader, this practice may interfere with effective discussion by the panel.
Arranging the panel properly will lend effectiveness to this form of discussion. The members should face the audience. One possible arrangement is illustrated on page 22. It is important that each panel member adjust his chair so that he can see every other member without effort the chairman will also find that the best places for his readiest speakers are at the extreme ends of the table. He should keep the more reticent members close to, him so that he can readily draw them out with direct questions. If the quieter ones sit on the fringes of the panel, the more voluble members are quite likely to monopolize the discussion.