Panels are ubiquitous at conferences. There’s a practical reason for this–panels allow the organizers to bring in three times as many speakers as solo speeches would. With enough big names on the conference program, you can draw in a bigger crowd.
Unfortunately, the format usually disappoints. If you want to keep attendees from drifting out the doors or burying themselves in their phones, try these tips for organizing panels that don’t suck.
Yes, you want interesting and articulate people on the panel, but the moderator matters more for the panel’s cohesion than any other individual up on stage.
If you’re moderating, get your head around the idea that the panel doesn’t hinge on your subject matter expertise. Your primary purpose is to ask probing questions and highlight disagreements worth hashing out. This is why some bigger conferences will bring in television news personalities as moderators. Steering people toward interesting observations–and avoiding dead air time–is what they do all day.
If that isn’t your line of work, then try watching a few shows to pick up pointers.
Jennifer Dziura runs the career and life advice site GetBullish.com, and the Bullish Conference, a conference for “women who want to do their own thing.” She doesn’t do panels at Bullish because she knows if someone is asked to give a solo speech, she’ll prep and practice.
“Panelists, on the other hand, rarely prepare anything,” she says. “It’s awful. It wastes people’s time.”
If you are organizing a panel, then force the panelists to prepare by pretending the organizer needs more information to moderate the event, she advises. Ask what kinds of questions the panelists think they should be asked. Then ask for short responses in a bullet point format so a panelist will be able to devise follow-up questions in advance.
“[Consider replacing any panelists] who thought they could just show up and chat,” Dziura says. “It’s not a watercooler.”
“My biggest, number one peeve when it comes to conference panels is moderators and panelists who waste a ton of time going over panelists’ bios and credentials,” she says.
First, much of this info is already in the conference program. Second, the point of a panel is not to celebrate what the panelists have done; it’s to create something on stage that couldn’t have happened if each person appeared individually.
“Attendees are there because they want information and skills that will help them solve problems in their own lives and work,” says Fink. “The best panels give attendees time to think about and apply what they’ve learned during the panel.”
If you’ve got a panel on social media, then you might review the Twitter feed from the conference to see what people are doing that’s interesting, and the panelists could point out what people could do better.
Long-windedness can ruin even the best setup. I once attended a panel featuring two household-name literary giants and one local author the organizers chose to include. Guess who dominated the air time?
A good moderator will “keep the discussion flowing without allowing any one person to dominate, much like a good dinner host would,” says Fink.
A moderator or designated panelist should also keep the Q&A time from going off the rails. Some audience members don’t understand a Q&A is about asking questions; not telling a life story. “The best line I ever heard at a conference: ‘Do you have a question?’” Fink says.
Be sure to end the panel promptly–it’s fine to get out early. People go to conferences to network anyway, and having more time for that is always a plus.