Why panel sessions suck (and how to fix them)

by Scott | 4/11/2009 | 25 Comments »

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.


Kill lecture boredom through science

by Scott | 4/8/2009 | 5 Comments »

One way to think about public speaking is that’s it’s a game of attention. You have to keep people’s attention in order for them to learn anything from you.  Lose their attention and it’s game over.

But most things that earn people’s attention are annoying. I could stand at the front of the room and set off the fire alarm every 5 minutes. They’d hate me, but boy, I’d sure have their attention. What we really want is positive attention.

One great nugget comes from Bligh’s book, What’s the use of lectures? There he explains exactly how long most people’s attention spans probably are. This chart shows an audience’s average heart rate over time:


This chart show exactly what happens while you’re speaking – people’s heart rates decline. They are getting bored and there is a break point at about 25 minutes.

This data comes from a small study of 16 students, over four different lectures. Not a huge study, but the best data I’ve seen on boredom (See page 51 of Bligh’s book)

What does this mean? Two things:

  • 20 to 30 minutes is a sweet spot amount of time for lectures (No surprise TED and GEL use this format).
  • If you go longer, do something different every 20 minutes to regain people’s attention.

The problem is, most speakers don’t know how to do anything but straight on, monotone, bullet list heavy, lecturing. We do not have another thing we know how to do in front of an audience.

The ideal thing would be go interactive. Have the audience do an exercise, answer a question, watch a movie, or move their bodies in some way every 20 minutes. But this requires planning and skills most speakers do not have.

If you are asked to speak longer than 20 minutes, plan breakpoints. Stop every 20 or 25 minutes and ask the audience if they have a question. Or better yet, ask them a question for a show of hands. Give them a challenging problem to solve, or show a short film, do a dance, or move to a new spot on the stage. Anything to help reset their attention cycles.

How to fix boring lectures

by Scott | 4/8/2009 | 4 Comments »

We all know lectures are boring. They go on too long, most speakers are dull on stage, and sitting in big dark rooms for an hour or more is not going to help anyone stay awake.

But if they’re so boring why do we go?  We go because we have little choice. If we want to hear from an expert on something, either we read their books (possibly boring) or go listen to them talk (also likely boring). There just isn’t a Bill Nye the Science guy video for most people’s ideas.

But there are things a thoughtful speaker can do -Here’s some tricks I use to fix dull lectures:

  • Kill the intro. Good storytelling gets into the middle of story fast.  Rip out the backstory, the story of how you first got into your field, of where you were when you first got the idea, blah blah blah. Tear it out. Start with the first challenge you faced. The first mistake you made. Keep your intro to 30 seconds  – that’s the length of an entire TV commercial and should be all you need to establish what you’re going to talk about.
  • Structure #1 – Problems and Solutions. Structure your talk around problems people in the audience likely have and how to solve them. Then everything you say will be structured around things they are interested in, or can at least relate to.
  • Structure #2 – Frequently asked questions. Instead of making your lecture like a bad textbook, all background and theory, structure the talk around the most frequently asked questions you get on the topic. Or the most interesting and bizarre questions. Or the most challenging and difficult questions. Much of the same material can fit into your answers, but because it’s structured differently it’s much more interesting to follow.
  • Make it shorter. Never use the full time you are granted. Never ever ever. Plan to end 10 minutes early to leave time for Q&A. If they fill that time, great, if they don’t get off the stage. At a minimum you will be bore them less than if you continued.
  • Vary your slides. An endless barrage of bulleted lists is attention death. Find a way to tell a short story with just one nice high quality image, edge to edge, on the screen. Even 30 seconds of strong visual imagery will reset people’s attention spans for the next dull slide.
  • Practice. Jokes and clever lines come out only through repetition. You have to go through your material several times until you find them, and get comfortable with the stories you’re going to tell and the way you’re going to tell them.

Learning from Jeffrey Veen

by Scott | 4/6/2009 | 5 Comments »

Recently I interviewed Jeffrey Veen about his many experiences as a public speaker. He’s the author of two popular books on design, founding partner of adaptive path, and now member of small batch inc. which recently launched wikirank.com.

Process: Veen’s background is in journalism and it’s no surprise his process is anchored by writing. He writes out his material first, working approximately like a speech writer, thinking about how the words will be spoken as he goes.  But once the material is right, he never uses the script. It’s simply an anchor for developing and learning the material, he think’s it’s important not to be scripted.

Ideas:  He often asks the question “Could this be part of a talk?” when hearing interesting stories, and keeps a folder of stories, both images and text, that he suspects might be of use. It’s a resource of interesting stuff to play with when he’s asked to do a new talk.

Performance:  Veen described focusing on transitions, knowing how to get from one slide to the next, as being a key factor in looking smooth and telling good stories.  And thinking like a writer he considers ways to build tension and release it periodically through his talk.

How to make any topic interesting:  He suggested one kind of narrative than anyone can create:  Talk about 1) where you struggled with a topic, 2) the principles that helped, and 3) what interesting observations you made.  If you speak of your own struggles you become instantly relatable and interesting, even if the topic is boring.

Disaster story: While speaking at Web Directions in Australia, he got to his second slide and the projector system froze.  He quickly let the audience know that it really wasn’t his fault (it wasn’t!) and improvised until they fixed the problem.

Here’s Jeff in good form, telling some great stories about design and innovation at Startup2Startup. It’s only 20 minutes long, which he thinks is a sweet spot for lectures:

The awkward introductory post!

by Scott | 4/6/2009 | 4 Comments »

The first post of every blog in history is always weird and strange. Here is yet another. Yay!

I’m working on my third book. This book is a fresh take on public speaking.

I’ve read dozens of popular books on public speaking, many of which are quite good, but I’m still left wondering: why are most public speakers so bad?  And what have I learned about people and the world at large from being someone who gets paid to speak in public for a living?

I’ll be using this place to capture interviews, share stories, ask for advice, and do some experiments, all on the way to getting the book out to you by fall of 2009.

There. awkward first post is now out of the way. Whew.