Audience members enjoying lively panel discussions
Photo: Stokkete / shutterstock

I organize several conferences a year as part of managing a business school. Some last a day and are held at our main Tokyo campus; some run for three days and are held in more exotic places up and down the country. A few focus exclusively on business, but most cover a broad range of topics: international relations, regional security, politics, economics, culture, and even sports.

The key to a successful conference is to organize stimulating sessions that excite and engage the audience. I have compiled six simple “how to wow” tips for lively panel discussions. Here they are in brief:

  • Set timely themes and gifted speakers
  • Be original
  • Embrace diversity
  • Get the right moderators
  • Address issues from many sides
  • Eliminate distance

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Session Themes: Timely, with Top Speakers

First, an obvious enough point: you should always pick timely, relevant themes for your conference sessions. Here in Asia, a topic like security in the South China Sea—where China is energetically building artificial islands for military purposes—is a good example of what I mean. Globally, it could be a topic like non-state actors (such as ISIS) who represent a threat to everybody, or Greece, whose economic situation could throw the world economy into turmoil.

By itself, a timely topic is not enough; you need to have high-quality speakers on the panel too. Here my rule is strict: If you can’t get a good cross-section of experts, better to ditch the whole topic than settle for second-raters.

Originality Is the Priority: Everyone Loves a Contrarian

I’ve been attending the World Economic Forum at Davos for over a decade now. Time and again, I’ve noticed that the most popular speakers there are always the contrarians, the people who come out with a point of view that at first seems totally implausible—until it wins you over!

Web entrepreneur Joi Ito, a regular speakers at Davos, is quite brilliant at this. Something of a living paradox himself—he is, after all, a Tufts dropout who ended up as director of MIT’s world-famous Media Lab—he can be guaranteed to come up with original, provocative concepts.

Here are a couple of examples: first, BI and AI (“before internet” and “after internet,” Joi’s version of B.C. and A.D.), and second, antidisciplinary vs. interdisciplinary, which is all about going beyond traditional academic disciplines to take unconventional and risky approaches to problem-solving.

People never go to conferences to hear safe and familiar opinions. They go to hear bold, stimulating, new ideas. Make sure that your speakers have the capacity to startle and to charm.

Variety Is the Spice of Life: Curate Your Speakers

One of the best panel discussions I have ever attended was at Davos in 2005. The topic was Africa, and the six people on the panel were Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Tony Blair, Bono, and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.

Yes, they were all powerful men (Davos has gotten more proactive about gender balance in recent years), but they also represented an intriguing diversity of ethnicities, professions, generations, and life stories. I vividly remember Bono—something of an outlier as the only musician or campaigner in the group—interrupting to complain about his not liking “the tone of the discussion.”

The best way to get sparks flying is to bring together people with different backgrounds and perspectives. One personal rule of mine is to mix “thinkers” and “doers”—for example, academics and business people. That ensures that all discussions are firmly rooted in the real world.

While most of us would struggle to compete with Davos for star power, it’s always good to get a few big name speakers for your event. The big names boost the gravitas of the event and make attracting other good speakers easier.

Moderators Really Matter: Keep the Momentum High

Good moderators are like movie editors: although they are not the stars in front of the camera, the decisions they make about “cutting” between speakers determine the pace, energy, and success of your sessions. A good moderator must also have the guts to ask difficult questions and the tenacity not to let the panelists wriggle out of answering.

For our most important sessions, we always get Nik Gowing, the BBC World TV journalist, to moderate. Nik has an extraordinary ability to master a brief quickly, drive the discussion forward, keep all the speakers on topic, and involve the audience in the Q&A. Quite a juggling act!

Insights Lurk in Unlikely Places: Attack Ideas on Multiple Fronts

At conferences, you never know which session will produce the most valuable insights. My approach is to boost the odds by tackling our main theme from a wide variety of angles—cultural, political, technological, economical, etc.

For example, when we organized a conference on Japan’s post-earthquake economic revival, we had sessions on the standard “serious” subjects—monetary policy, post-Fukushima energy problems, etc.—but we also had sessions that dealt with “lightweight” subjects, such as Japanese street fashion and the Japanese start-up scene. These two sessions yielded striking insights into the resilience, creativity, and positive thinking of the young Japanese who will have to revitalize the nation’s economy.

You never know where the good ideas are going to come from. Take a scattershot approach.

Up Close and Personal: Eliminate Distance

Where would you prefer to see the Rolling Stones perform—a small club or a 50,000-seater stadium? No contest. Obviously, a small club would be loads more fun. It’s the same thing for conferences: an intimate and relaxed atmosphere with the speakers and audience close to one another yields better results.

We always place our panelists on a low dais just a foot or so high and arrange the seats around them in a crescent pattern. Our staff even encourages everyone to sit close to the front to create a more direct energy between the speakers and audience.