The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing

Administrative Angles 

Developing an Effective Professional Panel

Zane Robinson Wolf, PhD, RN, CNE, FAAN; Ann Marie P. Mauro, PhD, RN, CNL, CNE, FAHA, FAAN


Plenary panel planning and implementation, carried out by temporary teams, are described for nursing organizations and professional development across settings. The conference or meeting theme and objectives frame panel member selection and moderator focus. Panelist conversations highlight different career trajectories and connect with attendees. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2020;51(3):100–102.]


Plenary panel planning and implementation, carried out by temporary teams, are described for nursing organizations and professional development across settings. The conference or meeting theme and objectives frame panel member selection and moderator focus. Panelist conversations highlight different career trajectories and connect with attendees. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2020;51(3):100–102.]

Professional organizations often include panel presentations as a conference highlight (Graebe, 2017; Rutherford-Hemming, Lioce, Kardong-Edgren, Jeffries, & Sittner, 2016). Scheduled alone or along with podium and poster presentations, colloquia, symposia, and workshops, panel presentations have stimulated, educated, and benefitted professional audiences. This article describes the structure and process used to plan plenary panels, and offers an approach for panels presented by nursing organizations based on lessons learned by a professional nursing organization. A time line for teams implementing plenary panels is provided, which can be used as a checklist (Table 1).

Time Line for Planning Plenary Panel

Table 1:

Time Line for Planning Plenary Panel

Plenary Panel Planning Example

Our regional research society promotes nursing science by offering annual scientific sessions. Attendees include nurse scientists in academic and clinical positions, bachelor to doctoral students, nonmembers, and others interested in supporting nursing science. The conference planning committee reconstitutes each year, using a staged-turnover approach in which a number of planning committee members continue to serve on next year's committee as other members rotate off and often are replaced with members from local organizations.

The committee includes a few board members and nurse scientists from small to large academic and health care organizations throughout the region. Along with organizational leaders, conference planning committee members offer institutional memory, analyze conference evaluations, and make suggestions for quality improvements. Current trends inform panel topics; for example, our organization's panel topics include disruptive innovation, populations, research methods, theories, patient-centered care, interdisciplinary teams, health equity, and policy. Our panels attract 250 to 300 attendees annually. Evaluation survey results have been positive. For 4 years, our annual conference has included plenary panel sessions to complement keynote speakers, workshops, symposia, and podium/poster sessions.

Plenary Panel Structures and Processes

Lead preparation times may vary as panels are planned by organizations or professional development groups (Table 1). Regardless of setting, conference planning committee members often include a diverse mix of key stakeholders who understand target audience needs and panel objectives. A planning committee chair, skilled in encouraging dialogue and moving the committee toward its goals, facilitates the process.

Supported by organizational leaders and consistent with the conference or meeting agenda, planning committee members brainstorm on the panel's theme, objectives, and schedule, including the panelists and moderator. The expertise of panel members should be complementary and meet stated objectives. A pool of four to six panelist candidates is identified by the committee and ranked by preference. Panelist members may typify early, middle, or late career stages (Citrin & Smith, 2003). A content expert with strong interviewing skills is invited to moderate the plenary panel to stimulate dialogue and engage the audience.

After determining the panel composition based on expertise and availability, the planning committee chair extends invitations to participate. If other committee members know the panelist candidates, they also may reach out to encourage participation. After panelists confirm, support staff obtain signed speaker agreements outlining the responsibilities of all parties and photographs for event marketing.

A planning committee member is designated to serve as liaison between the planning committee, the moderator, and the panelists. The liaison communicates the panel theme and objectives, contacts panelists, obtains current curricula vitae or resumes, shares them with the panel moderator, and organizes a conference call with the moderator to discuss the panel structures and processes. The liaison also summarizes the moderator's and panelists' career highlights for introductions at the start of the plenary panel. Three panelists are ideal for the moderator to fully engage everyone and balance the dialogue in a typical 60-minute session format.

Panel sessions, staged as a conversation with comfortable chairs arranged in a U-shape, encourage dialogue between and among panelists and the moderator. Lavalier micro-phones capture panelists' questions and answers. Panelists draw on their experiences as the moderator interviews them and initiates discussion on divergent, emerging topics during the dialogue. During the last 15 minutes of the session, panelists answer questions posed by audience members using standing or handheld microphones so everyone can hear. This structure and process easily applies to plenary panels for professional conferences or local meetings.

Moderator Engagement

The moderator creates a matrix to summarize accomplishments in panelists' curricula vitae. This approach serves to prepare a panel moderator, regardless of organizational or group aims, themes, objectives, and meeting locations across settings. Matrix headings include name, credentials, current employer, education, position responsibilities, specific expertise, scholarly work, honors, and awards. The matrix approach familiarizes the moderator with details of the panelists' careers, assists in differentiating their expertise, and promotes question creation for the session.

The moderator drafts interview questions to encourage panelists to describe their clinical practice, scholarly activity, and earned wisdom. Draft questions are submitted to key planning committee members for critique. Open-ended core and contingency questions are addressed to specific panel members; more general open-ended questions are answered by any panelist.

One or 2 months before the panel event, revised questions are sent to panelists for reflection, critique, and modification. This process helps to alert panelists to the draft questions; they are encouraged to ask for clarification, revision, or elimination of questions.

Panelists often contact the liaison or the moderator for further clarification of panel format and processes. If slides introducing plenary panel objectives and panelist photos are used, they also may be sent for prior approval. The panelists are cautioned not use slides, notes, or handouts to maintain conversational dialogue.

Although familiar with the panelists' work, the moderator meets panelists in person prior to the session to review the panel activities and logistics. The moderator leads and directs the conversation, attends to panelists' comfort, and fosters ongoing discussion by focusing on responses and moving in-the-moment during the discussion to other questions. A binder or other system to organize notes (in large print) anchors the moderator and allows for rapid movement from more general questions to those targeted to each panelist's expertise.

Panelist Process and Contribution

Panelists bring years of intellectual, clinical, and professional expertise in nursing and health care. The goal is to have them reflectively provide responses, clarify questions posed by the moderator, and facilitate the flow of conversation. During interactions and dialogue, panelists' efforts often coalesce as they become a temporary team that promotes audience engagement.

Vignettes are offered by panelists as stories that incorporate wisdom and advice. Personal insights and lessons learned from their work help the audience see the depth of their expertise and the relevance of their scholarly and clinical work. Early, middle, and later career examples keep the audience in the dialogue. The diversity of panelists' experiences inspires new ideas and creates connections among attendees.

Immediately after the session, panelists are available to briefly meet attendees for questions, comments, and expressions of appreciation for their contributions. Audience members frequently request advice. Large meeting rooms may inhibit individual public comments and questions from the audience during the panel, so postsession panelist availability adds to the sense of a shared, professional community.

Panel Evaluations

Planning committee members assess attendees' responses regarding panel objectives and sessions, review results, plan subsequent panels, and make improvements. Panel evaluation methods often consist of e-mailed surveys. For example, noting ongoing technical and sound issues with lavalier microphones, our organization's next panel will use handheld microphones for panelists. Surveys are sent soon after meetings so that attendees' impressions are current.


A conversational, expert plenary panel provides a unique, stimulating professional dialogue compared with more traditional formats. These panels may stand alone or complement other conference session formats (Laist, 2017). They may be used by organizations or professional development groups across settings. Planning committee membership and processes as well as panelist and moderator selection must align with the panel theme and objectives as they relate to an organization's or group's mission.


  • Citrin, J.M. & Smith, R.A. (2003). The 5 patterns of extraordinary careers: The guide for achieving success and satisfaction. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  • Graebe, J. (2017). From the field: A panel on leadership in continuing education. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 48(11), 489–491. doi:10.3928/00220124-20171017-03 [CrossRef]
  • Laist, R. (2017, December5). Academic conference panels are boring. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Rutherford-Hemming, T., Lioce, L., Kardong-Edgren, S., Jeffries, P.R. & Sittner, B. (2016). After the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Simulation Study—Recommendations and next steps. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 12(1), 2–7 doi:10.1016/j.ecns.2015.10.010 [CrossRef]

Time Line for Planning Plenary Panel

Time FrameAction Steps
10 to 12 months before panelSelect planning committee chair and members from key, diverse stakeholders who know the target audience
Identify future-oriented theme and 2 to 3 matching objectives to establish panel focus
8 to 10 months beforeIdentify date, time, and panel length in minutes, including audience questions
Identify moderator and panel size fitting time frame
Brainstorm potential panelists based on panel theme and objectives, and matching expertise
Invite potential panelists
Share panel theme and objectives with moderator and panelists
Finalize panel composition based on availability
Request curricula vitae and resumes; send to moderator
Obtain signed speaker agreements, outlining responsibilities of all parties, and photographs for marketing
Make onsite arrangements for room, microphones, audiovisual equipment, panelist chairs, and audience seating
4 to 6 months beforeContact panelists for logistics; create matrix to summarize panelists' expertise
1 to 2 months beforeDraft questions matching panel objectives and expertise; identify specific and general questions; share draft questions with panel and key stakeholders; revise
Send final questions to panel; create binder or other system to organize questions
Prepare brief moderator and panelist biographies, and introductory slides with photos
During and after panelAllow 10 to 15 minutes for audience questions and comments
Offer time postsession for panel to meet with attendees
Send postsession evaluations; analyze results to address development needs

Dr. Wolf is Dean Emerita and Adjunct Professor, La Salle University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Editor, International Journal for Human Caring; Dr. Mauro is Associate Dean, Professor, and Director, Center for Educational Research and Innovation, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, School of Nursing, Newark, New Jersey.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Zane Robinson Wolf, PhD, RN, CNE, FAAN, Dean Emerita and Adjunct Professor, La Salle University, 1900 West Olney Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19141; e-mail:


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