Answering my own questions since 2001

Why conference panels are awful, and how to fix them

Panel

“Panels are the best way to make four interesting people boring.” – Andy Baio

Nobody—at least nobody among my peers—likes panels. The sins of the format are manifold:

  • The moderator reads exhaustive bios for each participant.
  • One or two panelists are allowed to dominate the conversation.
  • The moderator and panelists are woefully underprepared.
  • The topic is too broad, or the conversation isn’t kept on topic.
  • The moderator thinks their job is simply to introduce the speakers, and then escort the microphone around the crowd.
  • Each of the participants are allowed to do a kind of mini-presentation at the beginning of the session, with the usual silly faffing about with slides and laptops. Often these presentations are despairingly self-promotional, and panelist don’t respect their allotted time limit.
  • Questions from the audience are of inconsistent quality.
  • Audience members are allowed to speechify at length without actually asking a question.

If they’re awful, then why are panels so commonplace?

Spots on panels are often the silver medal for speakers who didn’t receive a dedicated speaking slot. Conferences will also slip sponsor speakers onto panels, where they’ll be less conspicuous. For high prestige events like SXSW, they’re a means of stacking a speaking submission with a number of recognized names to increase its likelihood of success. In my experience and that of several of my peers, SXSW Interactive is a factory for awful panels in this mode.


Me, Kris Krug and some other guy pretend to be interested in what each other are saying. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Lim.

How do we improve panels?

Later on, I’ll describe a particular style of panel that dodges a lot of the common panel problems. First, though, let’s talk about how, as a moderator, you can make the best of a bad format.

Prepare yourself – This seems obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Hopefully you’ve been selected as a moderator because you know the topic well. Even so, do some research into each panelist’s background and work. Be sure you know what the hot button issues of the topic are likely to be. For example, if you were moderating a session on user experience today, the flat design of iOS 7 will probably be a topic of conversation.

Tell a story with your panel – Choose and order your questions with a story—or at least a progression—in mind. Maybe you’ll go from the topic’s origins to current practices to the future? Maybe you want to progress from gentle inquiries to hard-hitting, controversial topics? Knowing how you want the session to flow will also help you handle unforeseen questions or issues that arise.

Give the panelists most of the questions ahead of time – Let them know what questions you’re going to ask, but also make sure you hold back a few to keep the conversation fresh. Tell the panelists you’re doing this, so that they’re not caught entirely by surprise.

Set expectations – Explain the structure of the session to the audience—how long it is, when they can ask questions, and so forth. Then vigilantly adhere to that structure. Audiences can be discomfited by even a small deviation from the program.

Lean in – Most moderators seem to think that less is more in their work. The opposite is true. Don’t worry about hogging the spotlight. As the moderator, you are the spotlight. You direct the conversation and the audience’s attention. Interrupt prolix panelists and reframe audience questions.

Eschew your own opinions – Your job is to steer the conversation, not contribute to it. We overstep our role as a moderator when we voice our own opinion. The audience has a keen nose for this. If you want to get a particular insight into the conversation, frame it in the form of a question, or prompt one of the panelists to bring it up.

Keep a tight leash on the audience – When I’m moderating, I like to invite the audience to ask questions that are “three things—short, specific and end in a question mark” (I heard that somewhere, but I don’t remember where). This can silence the audience members who have prepared eight-minute speech in the guise of a question. If they want to give that speech, they’re welcome to organize their own panel. Or, you know, start a blog.

The mini-interview solution

Over the hour, you bring each panelist on-stage by themselves to sit down with the moderator. If you’ve got three panelists, they each get 15 minutes. Finally, in the last 15 minutes, you bring all three panelists on stage and invite questions from the audience.

What problems does this solve?

  • It ensures that each panelist gets their fair share of speaking time. Nobody hogs the spotlight, and the shyer panelists get their time to shine.
  • You can focus each interview on the particular strengths of the panelist, or on a particular aspect of the topic.
  • The other panelists actually listen to the person on-stage, instead of just waiting for their turn to talk.
  • The panelist only has to be ‘on’ for a half-hour, so their focus will be sharper.
  • The conversation feels more intimate, because we’re just watching two people on-stage for most of the session.
  • As audience members, we’re very familiar with the interview model—we see it on TV every day. It may offer an easier entrance into a topic than the panel.

The downside of this approach is that you get less interplay among the panelists, but I find that aspect of panels is often overrated. The mini-interview asks a little more of panelists with stage fright, as they’re the central focus of the audience’s attention for 15 minutes. However, the moderator is also more able to guide them through that if there’s nobody else on-stage.

We used this technique at Fireworks Factory this summer (where we’re committed to no panels), and it’s a mainstay of Web of Change. I think it’s actually easier to get right for moderators and panelists alike. May the future hold more interviews and fewer panels.

Do you have any love lost for panels?

4 Responses to “Why conference panels are awful, and how to fix them”

  1. LRS

    Excellent blogpost. I will pass this along to my colleagues. I think panelitis should be declared an official communicable disease!

  2. Andy Baio

    I *always* prefer 15-20 minute solo talks, but if you have to do group-like setting, I’m a fan of the interview approach. We had all four of the original Boing Boing editors on stage at XOXO this year, for the first time ever, and we had Glenn Fleishman interview them. Started out one-by-one, then asked questions of the group. It worked well.

  3. William Azaroff

    Thanks Darren. I was just asked to moderate a panel, so the timing for me to read this is excellent. Will take what you wrote under close consideration.

  4. bobby

    Darren

    Another good post.

    Are you still based in France or have you returned to Canada. Do you speak fluent French ?

    bobby

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