How to Host a Panel Discussion

Hosting a panel discussion is a great way to get people talking about harassment. In a panel discussion, the audience will hear the unique perspectives each panelist has to contribute. Here are the steps to hosting a successful panel discussion:

  1. Identify a question that the panel discussion will be based on. Examples include: street harassment incidents within the community, research that your Hollaback! site has completed, examining the role of technology, men, or the law in the movement to end online harassment, etc.
  2. Choose the size of your panel. An ideal panel size consists of a maximum of 5 participants. Remember that larger groups of panelists make it difficult for every person to voice their opinions without going over the time limit.
  3. Choose the panelists that will speak during the discussion. For a rich discussion, include individuals who represent diverse backgrounds (including race, sexuality, and ability) and can offer diverse opinions about the issue being discussed (ex. invite transit workers’ union members and a representative of the LGBTQ community to discuss street harassment).
  4. Choose a moderator for the panel. This person should have a good understanding of harassment and should be able to guide the conversation. It is not the best idea to have a panelist take on the moderator role. Make sure the moderator understands that their role is:
    • to introduce the panelists,
    • to ask the panelists several questions,
    • to create a smooth transition in between questions,
    • to moderate any potential disputes among panelists,
    • to immediately address any offensive comments from panelists and audience members, and
    • to keep track of the length of responses from each panelist, making sure that the length of the panel discussion doesn’t exceed the time limit.
  5. Poster from Hollaback! Istanbul panel
    Hollaback! Istanbul hosted a screening of “Miss Representation” and a panel afterward with Nevval Sevindi (journalist and founder of KADER) and Zeynep Dereli (politician and businesswoman).

    Write out several questions that you want to ask your panelists. You’ll have the moderator ask these questions to get the discussion started. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how,” rather than questions that simply require a yes or no answer. You may want to intentionally choose a few questions that you predict your different panelists will answer quite differently because of their different perspectives and experiences. This will make for a more interesting discussion.

  6. Choose the length of the panel. The average length of a panel discussion is one hour. Check in with your panelists to see if they plan on bringing any PowerPoint slides or giving a presentation that would require you to increase the length of the panel. Plan to increase the panel length by no more than 30 minutes. (Advice: Longer panel discussions are best if scheduled in the morning.) You should also allow time at the end of the panel for the panelists to take questions from the audience.
  7. Communicate with the panelists once they confirm that they can attend. Send them reminders about the time, date, and location of the event. Give them information on the other panelists you have chosen and introduce them to the moderator. Go over the event guidelines and let them know what you are expecting from them (ex. they should talk about their experiences and prepare to provide background information on street harassment.) You might let them know a few of the questions they’ll be asked, so that they can prepare some good responses. Remember to email and call the panelists the day before the event to reconfirm and see if they have any last-minute questions.
  8. Make it clear to the panelists as well as to the moderator that sexist, racist, and homophobic language will not be tolerated, and that everyone in the discussion has a responsibility make the event a safe space for all panelists and audience members. Talk with the moderator and make a plan for how they will handle offensive comments, whether from the panelists or from the audience. You might want to have the moderator brainstorm a few responses to comments that you predict some people may make. For example, when it comes to street harassment, some people might be likely to say, “She was asking for it because of how she dressed,” or “Black and Latino males are more likely to harass women on the street.” If the moderator is aware that some people may make these sexist and racist comments, and if they have some strong responses planned out in advance, then they will be able to explain to the panelists and audience members why these comments are wrong.
  9. Create an pamphlet for audience members that includes an informational statement about your topic, as well as short biographies of the panelists and the moderator. Also include information about the events after the panel (ex. the question and answer period or any refreshments that will be served after the discussion). Be sure to include a list of resources and any websites affiliated with your Hollaback! site so that audience members can connect with you after the panel.
  10. Before the panel, you’ll want to promote the event, and get it listed on local calendars. You’ll also want to make sure that all necessary equipment is prepared for the discussion. If you need to use microphones or overhead projectors, be sure that they work. Also check to make sure the lighting will allow for audience members to see all the panelists. If the venue has dim lighting, make sure the panelists are seated in the brightest part of the room.
  11. During the panel, set the stage in a way that encourages interaction between the audience and the panelists. It is best to stay away from the traditional setting of a long table with panelists sitting behind it. Instead, you could have panelists sit on stools or normal chairs. (You can choose to put a small coffee table in front of them for water or drinks.) Have their seats arranged in a circular shape to encourage interaction between the panelists themselves. Make sure you have at least one volunteer taking pictures of the event.
  12. After the panel, have your panelists stay around for a few minutes to speak with any audience members who would like to speak with them one-on-one. Also, be sure to thank the panelists and moderator for taking the time to participate in your panel discussion. You may even want to consider getting them a small gift as a token of thanks.
  13. Share pictures, post online about how the panel went, and encourage participants to share their experiences.


Click here for a PDF version of this Holla How-To!