Why panel sessions suck (and how to fix them)

by Scott | 4/11/2009

Most training conferences in most industries resort to what’s called a panel session. This is where 3 to 5 experts get up on stage and each one, in turn, bores the audience to death.

Why do panels still happen? One reason. They’re sooooo tempting.

In theory a panel is jam packed with goodness, as it gets more people on stage at the same time, creates something real and spontaneous, and all things being equal more interesting stuff should happen than your average lecture.

Why doesn’t it work? Here’s why:

  • Everyone is too polite. For a panel to work the panelists must be comfortable disagreeing with, or passionately supporting, each other in front of a crowd. Few professionals are willing to do this, especially if they just met the other panelist 5 minutes ago. They know that to openly criticize someone else is likely to make them seem like a jerk. Why take that risk?
  • There are too many people.  If you want a good dinner conversation, how many people can you have ? 3?4? Maybe if it’s a quiet restaurant, 6? The more people, the more fighting their will be for the floor, the harder it will be for them to make eye contact with each other, and the easier it is for people to hide.  A debate, meaning two people, is way preferable to a 6 person Battle Royale. It forces people to take a stand and speak up. Have more than 3 or 4 people and you get the opposite effect.
  • There aren’t enough microphones. If the goal is a lively conversation, everyone has to have their own microphone. Sitting in the audience, waiting for the microphone to be passed between people…. zzzzzz. It’s energy death.
  • The panelists are dull and unprepared.  Sometimes they’re on the panel because they’re too dull, or low profile, to earn their own session in the eyes of the organizers, and the session isn’t tended to as much as other sessions. And even when you get rock stars, they will look to the moderator to set the tone, and if the tone is dull, they’ll follow.
  • People waste time stating the obvious. Each speaker should have their background, bio, and even their two sentence position on the topic, available online. Get it out of the way. And the panel should have a sense of their audience so they don’t spent 10 minutes debating the finer points 2+2 = 4.
  • The moderator is passive. It’s the moderator’s job to set up questions that will polarize, or spark strong opinions. Simply giving each panelist 5 minutes and opening the floor to the audience is rarely going to be interesting. There is no angle or structure for people to respond to and use as leverage to make their points. Often the moderator is the conference organizer, and they are afraid to challenge the panelists since the panelists are their guests.

How to run a great panel session:

  • Pick a strong moderator. You want a Phil Donahue. Someone who can facilitate, help people express their opinions, Cut off people who are hogging the floor (when was the last time you saw this done when it needed to be?) and call bullshit on occasion. They need to be prepared with tough questions, the questions everyone in the audience wants to be asked,  have done some research, and who will instigate when necessary to keep the debate lively, but get out of the way if the conversation is going well.
  • Limit position statements.  5 minutes is more than enough time for a speaker to introduce their opinions. Never ever use more than 1/3rd of the session time to prepared, canned round robin presentations by the panel. This is a cop out. The whole idea of opening remarks is to draw people into asking each other questions and create a lively conversation. The moderator should be skilled at audience Q&A and editing rambling, or poorly constructed, audience questions.
  • Frame the panel as a debate with a clear question. Avoid panels with the title “What is the future of blah blah blah?”. This rarely works. It’s too vague. Instead the moderator should work with the panelists to frame a more definitive, and polarizing structure. “Will blogging still be here in the year 2012?” Assign each panelist a yes or no end of that question. If they balk at this being artificial, ask them to propose a better question, or series of questions to frame the debate. Pick the right spine and many problems will take care of themselves.
  • Pick panelists with naturally opposing viewpoints and backgrounds.  Get a police offer and a drug dealer on a panel together, and I promise the conversation will be interesting. End of story. Conference organizers are often highly constrained in who they can get on a panel – which might be the strongest explanation as to why they’re often so bad.
  • The moderator must prep and debrief the panelists. The moderator is really the orchestrator of the whole show and has to get everyone comfortable before the event. A short conference call weeks before so everyone at least had a chance to chat and hear the message and goals from the moderator at the same time is essential.  To debate in public with someone requires knowing them well enough to know you won’t upset them, and this can’t happen if the first time they speak to each other is 5 minutes into the panel session.

At the end of the day, good panel sessions are work. Not a ton of work, but if the organizer is also the moderator, the extra work to make the good panel with get dropped before anything else. It’s a great assignment to give away to someone, perhaps for free admission to the event.

I happen to  love moderating panel sessions. I bet other people do to. A wise conference organizer will find these people, given them free admission for their services, and get out of the way.


25 Responses to “Why panel sessions suck (and how to fix them)”

  1. Lynn Cherny Says:

    Yep – I saw a lot of bad panels at CHI 2009 last week, and many suffered from what you say here. I saw a few good ones too, that were rather experimental. My observations there:

    1) CHI panels used to be about being entertaining. People were expected to get into fights. Or be provocative. And have audience involvement. Very few were like that this year. I think the panels chairs did not educate panel submitters adequately.
    2) It’s not as easy to be provocative and argumentative if you’re insecure in your career, a relative unknown (like me) or have no strong opinions (not like me). Being a Big Mouth may not win you friends if it goes very wrong, or you come out like a simplistic parody of an intelligent person.
    3) Lots of panels were excuses for unrefereed paper grandstanding, not well tied together with any theme or discussion topic set up in advance. I was part of one – no one needed to hear 1o minute from each of us, and no discussion between us, and little time for questions.
    4) The most entertaining one I saw was basically a paper bashing – an inflammatory paper was presented quickly, and then a panel of commentators flamed it with well-taken, amusing, but sharp critique. It was hilarious for the audience, and the audience comments were good too. But will another inflammatory author want to be part of this again? We weren’t sure. I hear there was drunken fighting later that night over this one.


  2. scottberkun.com » Why panels suck (and how to fix them) Says:

    […] A new post up on speakerconfessions.com is all about panel sessions at conferences and how to fix them: Why panel sessions suck. […]

  3. Scott Says:

    Good comments – I think on #1 it’s entirely up to the moderator. They can make it fun and not stupid by setting the tone right if they choose to. But often the moderator sets nothing – lets the panelists sort out for themselves what tone they want, which generally results in everyone being too passive or too aggressive.

    I think the moderator can do a great deal for #2 as well – it can be a great forum for people who aren’t as well known to stand out and make a big contribution without a huge investment of time.

    On #3 – Thanks for the data point!

  4. Sean Crawford Says:

    I like moderating too. It can be instructive and refreshing to see panels at the local (more prose than Hollywood) sf & f convention. The group culture mandates that the moderator be prepared and have extra questions. The goal is clear although implicit: to share facts, opinions and enthusiasm with fellow fans. The panelists, however nerdy and unskilled, feel safe because the crowd is a safe one. And so even a stereotypical engineer will shine. The panelists tend to be self starters -many are self disciplined writers or editors- and so usually if a moderator was to fall off a cliff then the panel would still get started and be fine.
    I strongly believe that for a working conference the panel goal must be written as an explicit complete (grammatical) sentence even if -and especially if- it takes a while to compose one.

  5. Ellen Chisa Says:

    Great thoughts. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately- I’m entirely sick of going to conferences comprised entirely of panels. Here are some more problems and potential solutions…

    1. Panels are often the main attraction. – I’ve been to too many conferences that decided “oh, so we’ll have a keynote, and then we’ll fill the rest of the day with panels.” I think they do this in order to get the most big names to an event to present, but it makes for a very bland day. It leaves little time for interaction between actual conference participants, and the attitude is everyone should be compelled by these people. It tends to make people fall asleep.

    2. Too specific. – Especially in engineering and the sciences people get too wrapped up in what they’ve already done. They don’t use their background to provide insight to the audience- instead they just summarize their life work. This could be fine in a very specific conference, but in an overview dealing with a larger breadth- all of engineering/science, engineering/science problems, or anything outside of “New Innovations in X Field” you tend to lose most of the audience.

    3. They don’t already know each other. – When you get a panel full of people who don’t already know each other they tend to be overly polite, but also not know much about what the other people do. This makes it hard to ask each other targeted questions or poke holes in arguments.

    4. More Introverted Panelists are Drowned Out. I’ve been to many a conference where one person on the panel had a VERY strong opinion and it was hard for anyone else to get a word in edgewise.

    5. Panels become a series of Powerpoints (okay, fine, a series of “slide decks”). – Panelists shy away from discussion, and instead just present what would be the beginning of a key note.

    6. Panelists don’t take questions well. – This is probably more of a moderator problem. However, frequently, if an audience member asks a question, a panelist will hijack the question and answer something completely unrelated. Also, people tend to come and ask questions about a panelists specific work, making the question boring for most people in the audience, and even for the other panel members.

    How to fix this?

    1. Don’t have panels. – As a frequent conference goer, this would be my number one request. There are some scenarios in which they are the best answer- but shy away from them! Get more creative with what you want to do.

    2. Make sure your topic aligns well to a panel. – Some topics just aren’t great for a panel- it’s too hard to get into detail. I.e. “Alternate Energy” results in everyone standing up and saying we should develop forms of alternate energy. They usually agree that we should have a mix of different forms. Pick something it’s possible to disagree on. Pick something interesting to hear about. Pick something with sufficient detail that panelists will have a hard time tangenting into something overly specific.

    3. Have a moderator who knows how to interrupt- and isn’t afraid to do it. – Don’t let panelists get long winded. Consider a 60 second time limit for any answer.

    4. Engage the audience early. – Chances are you want a brief intro and some material, and then start getting to questions! It’s really fun to hear about where other audience members are from, why they are at the panel, and what they want to know. I always get more out of hearing what questions people are asking and then the responses than I do from a summary.

    5. Ban Powerpoint.- It’s a fabulous presentation tool when you know how to use it, but it doesn’t belong in panels for individual panelists. It’s for presentations.

    Thanks for writing this!

  6. John Allsopp Says:

    Hi Scott,

    as a conference organizer, we steer away from panels almost all the time (of the hundreds of presentations over 6 or so years we’ve had at our conferences, I think we’ve had 4 that would qualify as panels).

    It’s mostly a personal thing – I tend to find the signal to noise really low. Mostly, it’s a bunch of opinions, and for those stumping up to go to a conference, opinions don’t really deliver – they are there to learn, and the panel format is very bad at that, IMO. Could bore folks for hours on my thoughts as to why ;-)

    The elephant in the room is why you really often see panels

    1. at best, panelists might get a free ticket to the event, as opposed to all kinds of costs the organizers might otherwise cover
    2. very often, they’ll be from sponsoring organizations, and it’s part of the sponsorship deal (this is often true of many speaking slots at events) – it’s not to say that speakers from sponsoring companies are intrinsically bad, but that they have to be on their merits like everyone else
    3. you can include more industry/opinion leaders in the event, getting plenty of promotion (think of the link love and free promotion SxSW gets from not just the hundreds of panelists, but thousands of aspiring panelists asking for your vote!) (don’t get me wrong, I live SxSW, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t a cynical bunch, but I’m sure others out there are)

    I’d add in some more suggestions about how to avoid them, and still get some of the benefits

    1. do birds of a feather lunches, breakfasts and so on with much more participation all round – these are really easy to set up (just a bunch of tables with flip charts, and a bit of a leader to steer conversation)
    2. hold ignite style satellite events, perhaps at lunch, during a reception, or after hours

    great new (I think) blog Scott, I’ll be checking in more!


  7. Alan Dayley Says:

    The most successful panel session I ever moderated was based on audience questions. We had a pad of papers and required each person to write a question for the “expert panel.” I also had many questions pre-written in case the audience fell flat.

    Some of the audience questions were time wasters or jokes. These I did not ask of the panel. However, the good questions, randomly drawn, resulted in an excellent session with audience attention, some controversy between panelists and sprinkled moments of humor. Great fun!

    My tip: Something that pulls the audience in also drives more energy from the panelists. Since the panelists “must” be involved, work to involve the audience.

  8. Brandon Schauer Says:

    Oh, this is a favorite topic of mine. I’ve seen, participated in, and led several panels; very few have even come close to matching my expectations. And yes, the panel organizer is usually to blame.

    One of this issues is that panels are deceptive. You think they’ll come together easy; the belief is that you can just show up, have a conversation, and everyone will love it. That only works if you have naturally hilarious people on the panel and getting good content is of secondary importance to the audience (i.e., serve a lot of beer).

    Overall, I believe that the format of the panel has to match the topic and panelists. The McLaughlin Group format works well on subjective topics with panelists who are comfortable enough with one another to disagree.

    The Phil Donahue format works for specialist panelists and a panel leader who’s really well prepared, dynamic, and can excite the audience into participating. The best panel I’ve seen this format used really well; Josh Levine drew in the who audience as an active participant at AIGA-SF’s “Design through the Downturn” panel. The topic was on everyone’s mind, Josh guided the audience’s though generating questions on many aspects of the issue, the panelists were just treated like frequently-referenced audience members, and Josh brought his own point-of-view to the panel.

    I don’t think there are really any hard and fast rules for panels for what a panel must do or shouldn’t do to be good. (For example, I say PowerPoint is just fine; but I’d add an interesting constraint, like you can only have 3 slides and no text.)

    A good panel is purposefully designed, so that the topic, audience, panelists, and format all resonate to come together as a great 1-time experience. Good panels should actually be really hard work.

  9. Henning Fischer Says:

    We decided to abandon the panel format after a decent amount of debate for the reasons listed above. Personally, I have always been baffled by the low return on education and entertainment afforded by putting 3-4 people to whom you could just give an entire speaking slot.

    The alternative that we seen and used in the past is the on stage interview. You receive many of the panel’s benefits: the interplay between two people, the possibility for audience participation, etc., without some of the most significant drawbacks: pandering to the audience, participants mailing it in, etc. This format has it’s issues too, but I think it gives 75% of the benefit at much lower risk.

  10. Speaking linkfest | Speaker Confessions Says:

    […] stepping stones to practice. Recommends panels, (which we ripped on here) as a way to get started. It seems easy to find forums for speaking as long as you have expertise […]

  11. Jared M. Spool Says:

    Interesting. It was just today I was talking about what makes a panel great with my co-panelists for this upcoming week’s IxDA SF discussion. I basically told them what you wrote above, with some minor variations.

    I believe that panels are chosen by conference coordinators because they seem, on the surface, to be an easy way to get more powerhouse presenters on the program without increasing the amount of time at the venue. Four panelists in 90 minutes is cheaper than four 60-minute presentations. After all, what’s not to like: put smart people in front of the audience and it all just works, right? Nope.

    In my experience, planning a great panel is a lot more risky and, to do well, takes a lot more time. The IxDA Interactions09 panel I did, which lasted for exactly 1 hour, took about 12 hours of preparation and work of my time, plus another 2-3 hours of each of the six panelists. So, we’re talking about 30 hours of work total.

    Since you asked me on the Twitter, here are a few of thoughts I have about crafting a great panel:

    I think the best panels have a strong narrative. A story that takes the audience member through the discussion. Each panelist and the moderator (!) is a character in that story and plays a role.

    Someone has to craft that story going in. I think panelists and the moderator should be cast into the panel. (When I put together the panel at the IxDA Interactions09 conference, I actually auditioned a couple of the panelists.)

    When I craft a panel, I try to eliminate opening statements altogether. Instead, I let the moderator use the opening minutes to introduce the characters and their points of view. I use a variant of Henning’s interview technique to do that. In other words, the moderator will interview each panelist conversationally to extract their opening positions. This has the nice effect of keeping things condensed and on point, since the moderator & panelist know exactly what they need to say to progress the story.

    I’ve also found that the best panels get audience interaction early. My goal is to have audience members interacting with (some) panelists within 15 minutes. I typically do this by introducing one panelist, interview them for 4-6 minutes, then introduce a different panelist, interview them for 2-3 minutes, then go back to the first panelist for a reaction to the second panelist’s statements, then open up for audience questions. The subsequent panelists are introduced slowly, with more audience interaction for each.

    As part of their characters, I usually assign the panelists specific roles. I cast them because they are well versed in the issues and have good examples and experience to balance out the topics. I also choose them for great stage presence.

    For example, when I assign the roles, I might insist they play the extremes, because the story I’ve chosen is one about exploring the boundaries of an issue. Each panelist isn’t to approach the topic with a moderate viewpoint, conceding the other point of view. Instead, they are to argue their point voraciously, adopting a strong my-way-is-the-only-way tenor. This is more than your suggesting of getting opposing viewpoints—this is playing a character that has strong opposition.

    Ideally, in this example, I’d be aiming for each audience member to be taking sides, then finding themselves conflicted by the side they took. I want the audience to play “perspective ping pong”, feeling the need to flip back and forth, because as they hear each subsequent argument, they find themselves agreeing, despite their original objections.

    I even pay close attention to little details, like seating arrangements and mics. I remove any tables or obstructions between the panelists and the audience. I sit the panelists in a specific order, to help tell the story. (For example, when we’re debating opposing views, I’ll sit the extremes at the extreme sides.) I like the panelists in comfy chairs or director’s chairs, in a semi-circle, so they can see and react to each other. I’ll put the moderator in the audience, Donahue-style.

    And I’ll make sure everyone has their own mic. No better way to kill the energy in a panel than to have to share mics.

    All in all, it’s about creating a great experience for the audience, like every presentation is. And great experiences don’t happen by accident. They are carefully designed and crafted.

    At least, that’s my thinking…


  12. Recruiting Animal Says:

    Jeremiah Owyang had an article about this a couple of years ago. He said he asks each panelist to bring 3 ideas that she wants the audience to take away with them.

    This guarantees some value. In my experience, however, not everyone can assess what an audience needs to know so it doesn’t always work out.

  13. Christian Hagel Says:

    We just did a panel on emotional desing last week and used your suggestions here. The main problem was actually in the topic. We had hoped that at least someone in the audience would disagree with us on the basic promise, but no one did.

    We did introduce polarity into the panel discussion stating clear questions and taken different stands and we did get audience participation, but I don’t think we provoked the audience quite enough.

  14. Speaking linkfest | Speaker Confessions Says:

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  15. Robby Slaughter Says:

    I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I thought I would suggest an idea to fix panels. Called it a “Narrated Panel”:

    In this setup, there are two moderators and say, 4-6 panelists.
    – The moderators share one mike and one laptop
    – The panelists do not have microphones, but all have their own laptops
    – Every panelist is connected to a collaborative, real-time text editing tool (EtherPad or SubEthaEdit or whatnot)

    One moderator begins by introducing the panel aloud and giving bios on each of the people; the other distributes some pre-prepared questions via the editor to all of the panelists. They can then start typing answers to whatever questions they want.

    Moderators take turns asking the audience for questions and typing them in, and selecting and reading the responses aloud. It’s essential that there are two moderators so that each one can have a chance to read a passage silently a few times so they don’t stumble over the words.

    This idea would address the most of the problems you mention, and make for a really interesting experience. Feel free to try it!


  16. Nancy Frishberg Says:

    Concurring here with many of the comments already mentioned, and adding one more aspect of why panels suck.

    The panelists have talked out the controversial bits among themselves in preparing and by the time they reach the event, they’ve lost their edge with one another. Perhaps overprepared, but certainly the novelty of the differences among them is gone, and at the actual event they’re ready to acknowledge the others’ positions without voicing the objections they started out so firmly attached to.

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  21. Bob Sutor Says:

    In terms of controversy on the panel, I believe you want people who really do have very different opinions, rather than bringing in professional curmudgeons. That is, skip a person whose main goal seems to be the one to get the one sound bite mentioned by the press.

    If you are organizing a panel, make sure you offer enough activity for those on panel to make it worth their while to travel to the event. Can you do an extra press-only session? A meet-the-panelists reception?

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  23. rowena morais Says:

    Hi Scott

    This was a superb post especially for the brutal honesty you enforced throughout. I have moderated panel sessions a few times and you’re absolutely right about it being a tough job. Everything rests on the role of the moderator but its not entirely his job. Yet he is the glue that brings it all together. Really insightful piece that is worth looking at in detail for things not to do in the next panel session I run.


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