How to Host the Ideal Hybrid Conference Panel Discussion

Hosting hybrid events is the norm now. Even as many of us return to business conference travel, many others are choosing to stay home and participate remotely. Conference organizers know this, and since the costs of streaming to YouTube or other platforms are relatively low, hybrid events have become the norm. This applies to larger conferences as well as smaller events.

Hybrid events present many technical and logistical challenges. One of those is how to host hybrid panel discussions, where some members of the discussion panel are in-person at the conference and others are remote and joining by video chat. Likewise, the participants may also be a combination of in-person and remote.

Because building live video applications is what we specialize in here at WebRTC.ventures, we normally blog about technical topics and how to build products for certain use cases. Having attended a few (very excellent) conferences recently, today I’d like to pivot a bit to talk about hybrid conference panel discussions, including setting up the room to minimize potential issues. The short story: It’s not as easy as opening your laptop and bringing in the remote panelists on a video chat!

Reasons to host a hybrid panel discussion

There are several reasons why you might consider a hybrid panel discussion at your conference:

  1. Diversity of Thought. Allowing some of your panelists to join remotely means they don’t have to commit to travel or to attending your whole conference. This can help you attract outside experts who may not be part of your normal attendee persona, as well as to bring in thought leaders who are outside of your normal geographic region.
  2. Diversity of Panelists. The tech field is still notoriously homogenous. If you are trying to attract a diverse panel, but your conference attendees are not themselves particularly diverse, then allowing for remote participation may help you attract underrepresented groups.
  3. Last-minute Changes. Although business travel may be returning to something approaching normal post-pandemic, personal emergencies still happen. If a panelist suddenly cannot travel due to family or health reasons, you may still be able to get them to join the panel remotely. Or if they have to cancel, it will be easier to recruit a substitute panelist last-minute if they can join remotely.

What makes hybrid panels difficult

While there are many benefits to hosting hybrid panels, there are also many reasons that it can be hard:

  1. Building rapport among hybrid panelists. From the perspective of the remote panelists, they are typically just in a group video chat where one participant happens to be a camera looking at the in-person audience. In my experience, remote participants will have an easier rapport with each other than they will with in-person panelists, unless they can all see each other easily. This segregation of the conversation between the group of remote and of local participants can make easy-flowing conversations harder. This can lead to one group dominating the conversation since they can more easily see each other’s visual cues of when they want to speak.
  2. Moderator control of the hybrid panel discussion. In a traditional in-person setting, where all participants are in the same physical space, it’s hard enough to be a good moderator. Moderators need to cut off panelists who are speaking too long, keep the conversation on topic and well-balanced among the participants, and make sure everyone gets their fair share of the conversation so the audience gets a compelling discussion. Now throw in latency of the video/audio from remote participants, possibly video/audio glitches, and the extra difficulty of giving visual cues to “wrap it up” or “my turn to speak”. You can see why this is hard work! A well-prepared moderator who has the necessary confidence to guide the conversation across technological boundaries will make a huge difference. (Note that I am assuming the moderators themselves will always be in-person. Trying to moderate a hybrid panel as one of the remote participants adds way too much complexity.)
  3. Incorporating in-person Q&A. For remote participants as well as remote panelists, it’s a good idea to have a sound system that will allow the cameras to pick up the sound of in-person Q&A.  This will prevent you from having to repeat the questions so that remote attendees can hear it.
  4. Incorporating remote Q&A. Remote Q&A can be handled by text chat on whatever streaming platform you are using. An on-site staffer or volunteer can be responsible for monitoring the chat for questions and reading them out to the panel on behalf of remote attendees.  Alternatively, a more complicated set up would allow for remote participants to get in a queue on an online tool where they can share their video and audio on the big screen in-person and ask the questions themselves. We have built solutions like this for our client at WebRTC.ventures, but they would generally only be used by larger events that have the staff to handle this extra level of (very cool!) participation.
  5. Consistent internet, sound and video quality across all attendees. Ensuring that you have a good speaker and monitor to project the video out to in-person audience is important. Equally important are good microphone(s) that feed out to the live stream so remote participants can hear the conversation. And of course, if you don’t have sufficient internet quality on-site, then the video and audio for remote participants may be unusable.

Hybrid panels are not easy, but they are nearly a necessity these days. It’s worth learning to do it well which includes having a well thought-out, but not overly complicated setup.  

Tips for the ideal hybrid panel

Based on everything I’ve laid out so far, here are some suggestions for a medium sized event. I’ll define this as an audience in the low hundreds. Anything larger and you likely have professional A/V staff who should handle all this for you. Conversely, with under 50 participants you might be willing to live with a simpler setup and take some risks with the complications listed above.

  1. Always have a separate camera recording the event! Don’t rely on the streaming service to record for you. You will want to have a good local recording that you can still publish online after the event if your connection goes down entirely.
  2. Have a microphone for local participants, plus one for the audience. Depending on the size of your in-person audience, you might be able to get away with just one. But the ideal setup would have one microphone pointed at the panelists and another to the audience.
  3. Project your remote panelists on a big screen and make sure it’s visible to the audience. Be careful that the in-person panelists do not block the view of the monitor which shows remote panelists.
  4. Have a separate camera pointed on the in-person panelists which the remote panelists can see. This will allow for visual cues between the moderators and panelists, regardless of where they are.
  5. Consider how to blend local and remote Q&A. The moderator may be able to do this themselves, but most likely needs the assistance of a volunteer to monitor the remote Q&A chat.
  6. Make sure the moderator is comfortable with the setup. In addition to being well prepared for the questions and moderating the discussion, they will need to be trained on any tools you use.
  7. Allow for pauses. Even with strong connectivity, there will be a slight latency between remote panelists and in-person panelists. Remind all panelists of this lag and try to encourage pausing between comments and not interrupting others so that the in-person moderator has a chance to moderate the flow of the conversation and make sure that all panelists are included in the discussion appropriately.

The ideal setup

Based on these tips, the following diagram illustrates what this ideal hybrid panel setup might look like. Be sure to test your setup well before the event! If you use all of the items indicated, you’ll probably want an audio mixer at the producer table to handle the various microphone inputs and ensure they are fed into both cameras for live streaming and recording. Or, you may be able to trust the camera microphones to pick up all audio well enough if you have a smaller event and are comfortable taking that risk in favor of a simpler setup.

  1. A monitor to show remote panelists. This should be wall mounted or on a stand such that it’s easily visible to the audience. This is where you will display the video chat that contains remote panelists. Remote audience members should not be in that same live chat, instead they should be watching the livestream in most cases. A more sophisticated remote audience solution might allow them to be in a separate moderated video chat so they can ask questions on-camera, but that is out of the scope of this post.
  2. In-person panelists and microphones. Make sure seats are arranged around the monitor so they don’t block the view of remote panelists. Ideally, the in-person panelists should be able to see the monitor from their seats so they can also see the remote participants. If that is not possible, a more complicated setup will have a second monitor on the floor of the stage which mirrors the big monitors.
  3. An audience camera and speaker. A speaker is essential so the audience can hear remote panelists easily. Test the speaker with your full setup! A bluetooth speaker should work fine, but you’ll want to ensure that it doesn’t cause audio problems in the livestream or recording cameras. The audience camera could be optional for smaller events, but ideally a camera should be pointed at the audience to help remote panelists see the attendees and when they ask questions.
  4. A livestream camera. The livestream camera should capture the full stage. The room lighting must allow livestream viewers to see the remote panelists that are displayed on the stage monitor. Be sure to test the camera’s built-in microphone. Will it sufficiently capture the audio amplified from the microphones in the room? While it may work to simply use the camera’s microphone, a simple audio mixer would allow you to take the inputs from the microphones and the remote panelists chat and feed it into the livestream camera.
  5. A recording camera. In addition to livestreaming the event, you definitely need to capture a local recording which is of equal or better quality than the livestream. If your internet goes down or the stream’s quality is not great, you can post a higher quality recording of the presentation after the event. Depending on the camera that you are using for the livestream, you may be able to capture the recording on the same camera and slightly simplify your setup.
  6. A Q&A microphone. Depending on the size of the room and number of in-person attendees, you might be able to get away without a separate microphone for Q&A. If you do skip this, make sure that the panel moderator repeats all questions so that remote panelists can hear the question properly and so the livestream and recording pick up the question. Setting up a microphone to be passed around the audience or pointed at the audience can also save having to repeat questions.

Final thoughts

The most important thing to do is the same thing we software developers do to ensure quality … test, test, and then test again! Testing your setup at home and then again at the event venue will greatly increase your confidence before the hybrid panel starts.

This is not a tooling blog post. There are many different video chat tools, cameras and microphones you can use. While we’re not making specific hardware or software recommendations here, I hope this post was helpful to you in considering what items you need to think about to have a well run and enjoyable hybrid panel discussion at your next event. Good luck!

Did this post spark your interest in custom event management software? Would you like to build a solution to better address these concerns and make it easier for conference organizers to run hybrid events? Our team at WebRTC.ventures can help you build any kind of live video application. Contact us today for more information!

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