Dear event organizers,
Please stop organizing panel discussions. Please. Please!
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.
You want me to keep going?
I say this as someone who attends a lot of conferences and sits through
a seemingly endless number of panel discussions (most of which I end up
using as time to check email or write blog posts). All of these factors, and many more, keep panel discussions from providing value to the audience. And, if your conference is filled with panel discussions, it makes me less likely to attend year after year.
I also say this as someone who gets invited to sit on, or moderate, a lot of panels. I am interested to talk about issues, help people understand things, and both listen and learn on my own at the same time — that doesn’t happen through a panel. If you invite me to sit on a panel, or moderate a session at your event, i will come back to you with a challenge for how to re-organize the discussion in a different way.
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 scriptinog beyond that.
– No presentations and no powerpoints.
– 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 accomodate 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 event 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.
Let me say this… even though I have a clear view on how this shoudl happen, I still make mistakes – big ones. The other night i was a part of a discussion where I talked too much. I even got called out by someone in the audience (via twitter) and had to adjust mid-course. If I was not connected, I could have screwed up even worse that I did. So this is an ongoing learning process, even for regular panel people like myself.
So again, please don’t organize any more panel discussions. Please don’t fill your agenda will stale, self-promotional, lectures. Use these rare occasions when we get people together to discuss an issue to learn and share ideas, to innovate and solve problems.
(p.s. If you’d like me to moderate a vibrant discussion at your event, or even just brainstorm with you about ways you can improve the conversation around your issues, don’t hesitate to ask. I love this stuff.)