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How to Run a Conference Panel That Isn’t Horrible

Whenever I go to a conference, the thing I dread most is panels. A typical panel is a show about nothing. Sure, it worked on Seinfeld—but they had comedic geniuses obsessing over the perfect script and a whole cast of skilled actors and producers making it sing.

Panels aren’t going away any time soon. Since I end up sitting on them and moderating them on a regular basis, I decided to see if I could fix them.

And by fix them, I mean run a panel that doesn’t ruin your day.

Here are my guidelines: 

CHOOSING THE CAST

1. Keep it small. In my experience, the best panels have a moderator and no more than two or three guests. Just like in teams, less is more. Larger panels create more communication and coordination difficulties. It’s impossible to find a rhythm with six people on stage. People just sit there waiting to make their point.

2. Invite people who complement each other. I’ve suffered through panels that flop because the participants have nothing in common and because they have totally redundant perspectives. You need a mix of similarities and differences. In psychology it’s called optimal distinctiveness. Every panelist should fit into a common topic but stand out based on having unique insights or experiences.

3. Design for relationships between the panelists. A group of strangers sitting on stage together is a recipe for disaster. A great panel feels like being a fly on the wall for an actual conversation between friends or sparring partners.

Don’t just think about the qualities that you want in individual panelists or moderators; invite people who actually know each other. They’re used to having conversations together, they’re familiar with each other’s views, and they’re more likely to be comfortable debating and disagreeing respectfully.

If they haven’t connected before, have them spend some time getting to know each other. Even a quick email exchange followed by five minutes face-to-face backstage can help build rapport and give time to compare notes on what to cover (and avoid).

SETTING THE STAGE

4. Encourage the panelists to talk to each other. A rookie mistake is when panelists are all having individual conversations with the moderator. That’s just a bunch of one-on-one interviews slapped together—you would never do that in a meeting or at a party.

A creative way of nudging authentic discussion: invite each participant to ask a question of one other panelist. Along with catapulting them into a natural back-and-forth, it’s fascinating to see what they most want to learn from one another.

5. Ask them to keep their comments short. The most compelling responses are usually no more than 60 seconds. That’s where you start pushing the limits of conversational attention span and violating the natural flow of back-and-forth. Go longer and you’re just doing sequential monologues. Short answers open the door for burstiness, where it sounds like the panel is literally bursting with ideas. The energy picks up, people veer off script and actually build on one another, and there’s more room for unexpected wisdom and spontaneous humor.

6. Don’t let every panelist answer every question. That immediately devolves into mind-numbing turn-taking. No one has something interesting or informative to say on all the topics.

7. Tell them you might interrupt them. The moderator’s job is to guide the conversation to make it worthwhile for the audience. So if panelists start rambling, you need to jump in with a comment, a fresh question, or a redirect. At first I struggled to do that—I was afraid of being disagreeable. But I found that when I told panelists in advance that I might interrupt them, the awkwardness melted away. It’s not rude to interrupt them once you have their permission.

PREPARING THE SCRIPT

8. Start by asking for a story. Panels fall flat when participants never get to share their knowledge – and the audience has no context for why they’re there. Sometimes moderators try to solve that by reading lengthy bios for each panelist, which is a huge waste of time. Just introduce them with a few highlights that explain why they’re on stage, and invite them each to tell a story on the topic.

People come alive when they tell stories. I know that as a panelist, I’m much more entertaining when I tell a story about learning to love criticism or being told I type too loud. And then there are some natural follow-up questions to ask.

9. Pose questions that make the audience—and the panelists—think. The richest questions often start with why (to get at motivation/purpose) and how (to get at strategy/tactics). It can also help to surface tension, which doesn’t have to be with other panelists; you can prompt them to challenge conventional wisdom or their own past experiences.

Two of my favourite questions are “What’s the worst career advice you’ve gotten?” and “What’s something you believed early in your career that you now think is wrong?” Sometimes it helps to give them the questions in advance, both for peace of mind and for reflection time.

Another trick is to have the audience ask their questions at the beginning of the panel instead of the end – it helps the panelists be more specific and more practical.

10. Run a lightning round. Come ready with a few questions that panelists can answer in a word or a sentence. Other than an opening story, that’s the only time you want everyone to chime in: it’s a great way to get diverse ideas on the table swiftly and represent everyone’s voice. It can be a fun appetizer early on if there’s a burning question where you want to surface a range of views, a nice interjection to keep the conversation moving if it’s dragging in the middle, or a strong closing if you want to wrap up with a light, memorable Q&A.

It’s always reassuring to hear successful people open up about their vices. What was your worst idea ever? What task do you procrastinate on? When do you feel the most self-doubt?

Source: Author Adam Grant : LinkedIn