Why Panel Sessions Suck (And How To Fix Them)

Many conferences include what’s called a panel session. This is where 3 to 5 experts get up on stage and each one, in turn, bores the audience to death.

Why do panels still happen? One reason: they’re sooooo tempting. In theory a panel is great. It gets more people on stage, which should magically creates something real, engaging and spontaneous.

Why doesn’t it work? Here’s why:

  • Everyone is too polite. For a panel to work the panelists must be comfortable disagreeing with, or passionately supporting, each other in front of a crowd. Few professionals are willing to do this, especially if they just met the other panelist 5 minutes earlier. They know that to openly criticize someone else is likely to make them seem like a jerk. Why take that risk?
  • There are too many people.  If you want a good dinner conversation, how many people can you have ? 3?4? Maybe if it’s a quiet restaurant, 6? The more people, the more fighting their will be for the floor, the harder it will be to make eye contact with each other, and the easier it is for people to hide.  A debate, meaning two people, is way preferable to a 6 person Battle Royale. It forces people to take a stand and speak up. If you have more than 3 or 4 people and you get the opposite effect.
  • There aren’t enough microphones. If the goal is a lively conversation, everyone has to have their own microphone. Sitting in the audience, waiting for the microphone to be passed between people…. zzzzzz. It’s energy death.
  • The panelists are dull and unprepared.  Sometimes they’re on the panel because they’re too dull, or low profile, to earn their own session in the eyes of the organizers, and the session isn’t tended to as much as other sessions. And even when you get rock stars, they will look to the moderator to set the tone, and if the tone is dull, they’ll follow. A panelist is a guest: what cues is the host giving them for how honest to be?
  • People waste time stating the obvious. Each speaker should have their background, bio, and even their two sentence position on the topic, available online. Get it out of the way. And the panel should have a sense of their audience (job titles, ages, etc.) so they don’t spent 10 minutes debating things the audience doesn’t care about.
  • 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.

How to run a great panel session:

  • Pick a strong moderator. You want a Phil Donahue. Someone who can facilitate, help people express their opinions, Cut off people who are hogging the floor (when was the last time you saw this done when it needed to be?) and challenging panelists on occasion. They need to be prepared with tough questions, the questions the audience wants asked,  have done some research, and who will instigate when necessary to keep the debate lively, but get out of the way if the conversation is going well.
  • The moderator’s questions must center on what the audience wants to know. The audience is there for a reason: what do they expect to learn? What kinds of stories do they want to hear? When the session is over how will the audience have benefited from the session? It’s easy to try and please the panelists, but the panelists are not the customer, the audience is.
  • 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 cheese?” 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 2050?” 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 officer and a drug dealer on a panel together, and I promise the conversation will be interesting. What’s the equivalent in your field? 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.

At the end of the day, good panel sessions are work. If the organizer is also the moderator, the investment required to make the good will get dropped before other responsibilities. It’s a great assignment to give away to someone, perhaps for free admission to the event.

I happen to love moderating panel sessions. I bet other people do to. A wise conference organizer will find these people, given them free admission for their services, and get out of the way.


(This post was first posted on speakerconfessions.com)