Panel Discussions: 7 Tips On How to Make Them Not Suck



Do all panel discussions suck?

Or just at the conferences I attend?

You know, the panel…a group of “experts” on stage together, with a “moderator” who (in theory) facilitates a robust, meaningful dialogue.  But it never works out that way.  Instead, it’s a mind-numbing, time-wasting experience.  Most panel sessions are “conference filler” that passes for content.

OK.  So I have a bone to pick here.

I was at a conference with a panel this week.  The panel consisted of two senior executives “interviewing” two of their largest customers.  The whole thing was a deplorable schmooze-fest.  It was clear early on that the customers were good personal friends of the execs (chuckling references to boating and alcohol consumption) and had shown up as a favor to their buddies.   To say that the questions were softball gives softball a bad name.

I watched the audience.  Between the grimaces and the eye-rolls, I think it’s safe to say that this panel session falls into the category of “That sucked.”

What gives here?  Is it that conference organizers think panels are easier slots to fill on the agenda?  (Shouldn’t 4 or 5 or 6 people more interesting than 1?)  Not really.

If you’re not going to outlaw panels from your conference, then here are 7 tips to keep them from being horrible:

1.   Only include people who can speak in public well.  If someone is not OK with being a solo presenter, putting them on a panel with others isn’t going to make them any better.   There’s skill involved with being able to hold an audience’s attention.  Make sure your moderator and panel members have it.

2.  Don’t create a panel discussion for the conference sponsors.  Nothing turns people off like being sold to when they don’t want to buy.  If I wanted an infomercial, I could stay in my hotel room 6 floors up and lie on the bed with my shoes off to watch the infomercial on TV, rather than being stuck in the hotel ballroom.

3.  Only do panels for small to medium size groups.   175 is my magic number.  Above that, people can no longer see the eyes of people on stage.  Panels are conversational.  There’s nothing conversational about large conferences.  The production team who loads the staging, AV equipment and runs the tech for the conference refer to it as a “SHOW”.  Make it one.   A “fireside chat” belongs by the fire.  If you’ve got a packed ballroom, don’t go for fireside chat:  set the roof on fire.

4. Keep panel sizes small.  If we have to hear from all 11 of you, everyone winds up with a 30 second sound-bite, and no one says anything of interest.   3 is a great number  of panelists (see #1 above).

5.  Make the discussion fresh.   Tell the panelists about the topic, but not the specific questions.  If everything has been pre-arranged, scripted, and rehearsed, the conference will feel like an episode of The Truman Show: Weird.

6.  Include panelists who don’t see eye to eye. There’s a reason Jerry Springer is still on the air.  People are drawn to conflict.   To make interaction engaging, it helps to have people who see things from different angles.  You shouldn’t need to hire bodyguards on stage, but differences of opinion are helpful.

7.  Make Q & A meaningful.  Many a panel session becomes a death spiral ritual during Q & A.   You’ve seen the steps:

  • Painful awkward pause while waiting for someone to raise their hand.
  • A hand slowly moves up in the air.
  • Another painful pause while someone gets a microphone to the questioner.
  • Questioner gives a lengthy self-introduction.
  • Questioner thanks panel for all that they do.
  • Questioner lobs up a softball question.
  • Moderator is compelled to make every panelist answer the question.
  • Repeat ritual until session ends 55 minutes late.

By all means, make this illegal!

Get questions in advance.  Make sure they add value to the participants.   Moderators: keep your panelists on the topic.  Answer the question, move on.

What other tips do you have on improving panel discussions?  

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