Why panel sessions suck (and how to fix them)
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.