10 ways to save conference panels

It’s really astounding how poor most conference panels are.  The biggest problem is the expectation that if you get four smart, interesting people together on stage to have a conversation, that they’ll automatically have an interesting conversation.  Most of the time, they won’t.

Great conversations grow out of shared norms and trust between the actors – in this case, the panelists, the moderator and the audience.  Trust is often hard to build, so let’s start with norms.  Here’s what we can do right, every time:

  1. Start with a great moderator. Moderation is a skill, and it requires asking tough questions and a willingness to cut people off.  The moderator also has to know the subject area to be able to direct the conversation effectively.
  2. Empower the moderator. No matter who’s the best-known person on stage, it’s the moderator’s show.  The moderator is the master of ceremonies, not a sideshow or “nice to have.”
  3. Don’t have panelists from wildly diverse fields. No matter how impressive the names you can pull together, most of the time you’re trying to have a conversation focused on a (bounded) topic.  A civil rights lawyer, a CEO, a cabinet member and a movie star talking about “women’s issues” are going to have a very hard time getting past generalities.
  4. Prepare the group. Have the moderator talk to the panelists before the presentation, and set the ground-rules: no responses greater than 60 seconds, I will cut you off.  You can’t have a great panel if everyone shows up the day of the panel without having talked first, by phone or email (but preferably by phone).  Having a few of the panelists know each other is a big plus.
  5. Set goals. Your panelists are likely not improve artists, so don’t expect spontaneous insights without some map of where you’re going.   Decide in advance, and share with your panelists, points you’re going to make sure you hit in the discussion.  You can do this in a way that keeps the conversation organic, but gives a sense of milestones and a destination.
  6. No powerpoint presentations. Self explanatory.
  7. Short introductory remarks. Tell panelists they have 2-3 minutes.  They’ll still take 5, but probably won’t take 20.
  8. (in the Q&A) People must ask questions. Questions from the audience are great.  Speeches from the audience are not.  Insist that questions be one sentence long, and be willing to redirect, restate, or take a pass on a question that’s off topic.
  9. One question, one response. The norm should be that only one panelist responds to each question – and then make an occasional exception.  With a lax moderator, each panelist feels like they’re supposed to pipe in, and this can be deadly.  If each question gets 4 responses, and each response is 1-2 minutes, that’s 5-8 minutes per question asked.  Yawn.
  10. Go deeper, not broader. Whoever is asking the question (moderator or audience), the moderator should be ready with follow-ups that start with “What did you mean by….”  “I didn’t follow you when you said…” “Doesn’t that contradict…” The goal is to uncover things that are surprising and delightful, which only happens when you break through the stock answers.

Until we get this right, the main function of panelists will be as names on a program to attract conference attendance, and as validation of the stature of the panelists themselves.  This is fine as far as it goes, but it takes so little to do a whole lot better.

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