SXSW Suggestion #2: No More Panels

[There are so many ways that SXSW could change the way we think, operate, and organize around big ideas, exciting new tools, important issues, and as a community of smart, passionate people.  There are so many ways that SXSW is already disrupting the ways that we think about how technology can be utilized, creativity should be applied, what communications can achieve – but that mostly/only happens on site, during the event, and the momentum behind so many potentially exciting things is lost when everyone flies back home to the rest of their lives. I want to see SXSW get to that next level – and I have four quick ideas that I think can help.  This is #2.]

SXSW Suggestion #2: No More Panels.  

Last year, I wrote an open letter to event organizers here on this blog entitled “No More Panels.” It read (in part):

Panel discussions are boring.  They are almost always filled with people who are more interested in self-promotion than informed discussion.  Panels are dominated by powerpoint or other presentations, which in my experience don't convey much good information (the best presentations are image-heavy and presented really well, which is hard to do in this format).  The answers that panelists give are long-winded and generally share little new or relevant information. And, they tend to be uni-directional (i.e. the panel talks at the audience).  Even with a great moderator and really engaged panelists, the format simply doesn't work as well as it could.

I went on to suggest a few things could help to improve the way discussions are held at events.  I wrote:

I prefer vibrant, substantive, back-and-forth discussions among groups of smart people. I know it seems like a semantic difference, because of course that is what panels seem like they will be on paper -- but in practice, there are some key differences between what I am talking about and the panels I see happening every day.  Here are the ground rules I issue when I moderate a discussion:

  • Have a really clear question or set of questions to give focus, but little/no preparation or scripting beyond that.
  • No presentations and no powerpoint (or similar).
  • Nobody talks for more than a couple of minutes at a time - and talk to each other, respond, challenge, disagree.
  • Lots of specifics, lots of recommendations, lots of examples -- and not all from your work.
  • Reveal your secrets, talk about your failures, be personal and transparent - no robots please.
  • Most of the time is dedicated to question/answer with the audience, or comments submitted via some backchannel)

Format-wise, I like to limit the number of people on stage to three... a moderator and two 'experts' (or however you decided someone deserved an invite).  The format can accommodate more people, but you should also give more time for the session the more people you want to hear from.  No tables either... have us sitting on chairs, or even walking around so we can really interact with the people who we are trying to reach. Anything that stands between us and the audience creates a barrier to good conversation.

When I moderate, I start the session with very brief introductions that explain why I have invited someone into this discussion, or what I know about their experience that is relevant -- not a long-winded description of people's work history (everyone can Google your bio nowadays, or look in their program if they want to know more).  From there, instead of giving each of the invited experts each a few minutes to talk, jump right in with a question.  Charge one person to answer and from there the rest is a conversation.  The people on the panel should talk to each other, and to the moderator -- not just talk.  The moderator's role is to interrupt and re-focus the conversation if it goes off track.  If there is a backchannel conversation going, via Twitter or something else (and I haven't been to a conference in the last year where that wasn't the case), the moderator can/should monitor that discussion and bring some thoughts and questions in as well.

Also, if I could suggest - I think people who attend events love follow up.  After an event where I speak, whether its a panel discussion or something else, I send out an email with additional thoughts, follow ups, recommend articles to read and similar. Anyone who gives me their email address or contacts me afterwards gets it - and they are free to use, or share, or rebuke my thoughts if they like.

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There is a lot of really interesting programming at SXSW, and they are always trying to push new ways of integrating speakers and ideas into the conversation.  But the event is always panel-heavy and many of those panels simply are not good (enough).   In an era when conferences like TED and PopTech push the boundaries of what is possible, un-conferences are almost as common as formal events, and organizers stream sessions live online for free… having a panel heavy conference doesn’t make sense.  Frankly, given how creative the SXSW organizers seem to be, I am surprised by how many panels are still being organized each year.

I don’t think we need to throw out the schedule as it exists entirely, or do away with all the panels (yet).  But I do think SXSW should start with that basic concept in mind -- in planning for next year, seek to find entirely different ways to include smart people, push big ideas, tackle tough subjects, and teach us all new things when we gather together in Austin.

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