Improving Panel Sessions


We’ve all been to panel sessions at conferences that sounded good but turned out boring. I doubt this will change in any major way even though there are workable suggestions for improvement (see also here). Maybe this is just fear of change again, by all concerned – organisers, speakers and participants?

Provocative post by Scott Berkun on common problems with panel sessions as well as suggestions for improvement, extracted as:


  • Everyone is too polite.
  • There are too many people (on the panel)
  • There aren’t enough microphones.
  • The panelists are dull and unprepared.
  • People waste time stating the obvious.
  • 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.

Candidate solutions

  • Pick a strong moderator.
  • 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.

Where there’s a will, there’s always a way…

Picture credit here.

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