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7 Tips On How to Make Your Conference Panel Rock

Pubcon Keynote Panel

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
— Aristotle

I assume Aristotle was talking about a conference panel when he came up with this quote. That’s what a panel should be, the discussion/content that is created is better than if each person was speaking on their own. Unfortunately, most panels I’ve seen rarely meet, let alone exceed expectations. Here are my best tips for making them worthwhile for everyone:

1. Be an actual panel – 4 mini-presentations plus 2 minutes at the end for questions isn’t a panel, it’s four freaking presentations! 10 minutes for each person to “present” isn’t enough time to get into anything of substance anyways, but take those away and open the entire up for discussion, now we’re onto something! So many panels talk about audience interaction and discussion, and yet they leave the last 3 minutes into audience questions and many people leave feeling unfulfilled. On the other side, I also don’t think it should be left up to the audience entirely to ask the questions. The job of a great panel is to have great discussion which naturally stimulates thought and questions from the audience.

2. Have an actual moderator who moderates – People like to hear themselves talk, *cough* me *cough* but they take over the panel and a good moderator not only knows how to cut off a blabbering mouth, but also knows each persons strengths and can direct questions and rebuttals to the appropriate person. I sat on a panel next to a guy who said “in my book, I talk about” 7 times, and then at the end said “Well I guess I should mention my book” and held it up. I wanted to moderate him right in his nostril. The moderator should be on top of the self-promo, since that can kill a panel like nothing else.

3. Moderator intros each person – This is one of my personal peeves. Either each panelist is allowed to tell the room about themselves or the moderator reads out the pre-written bio. The issue is, given an open window, panelists can talk about themselves for 3-5 minutes each. Doesn’t seem like much, except with 4 panelists and a moderator that can last anywhere from 15-25 minutes! Most panels last for an hour. I’d prefer the moderator, who sometimes picks who goes on the panel, to introduce each person with the reason they picked the person, one minute each, tops. I realize a lot of people speak on panels to get exposure for their company, but the best way to do this is to get into the meat of the panel topic and share great info.

4. Stay on topic within reason – This is also an issue with solo talks, the content doesn’t match the description. It’s even harder with multiple people on a panel. The biggest problem with not being related to the description is people pick which concurrent session to go to based on that write up, which means they aren’t going to another. Especially for the huge events like BlogWorld, SXSWi, PubCon and Affiliate Summit, there are multiple tracks and topics. If you don’t deliver on your promise, not only is there a let down, but a missed opportunity to see another session that may have been more suitable.

5. No slides – I’m all in favor for banning them altogether, but especially for a panel. It’s a think-tank, and a place to create a dialog that happens nowhere else. A slide deck prevents this, especially if they’re the same ones the panelists use in their individual presentations. Even when I’m on a panel that requires slides/mini presentations, I’ll do something original for that panel, usually pulling up websites that have talking points for the panel topic (although this is dangerous, since it depends on usually unreliable conference wifi, but I’m a fan of living on the edge. Or something.)

6. Different opinions – A real let down for an audience is when each panelist says the same thing. This doesn’t mean there has to be violent arguments, but have different perspective on points at least. On a BlogWorld panel I was on, my favorite part was when myself and Shayne Tilley from Sitepoint had different opinions on pop-ups. I said they were evil, and he said they worked. The discussion showed two passionate opinions, and I respect him for having it. On the other hand, during a panel at Canada 3.0, I sat on a panel, and a policy writer from Google said “people like reading ads” and I lost my mind. Which was awesome. I don’t think I’ll be invited back. but I do love panels!! Seriously, ask me to be on yours at any of the main conferences, and I’d jump faster than a kangaroo on Red Bull that has to pee.

7. Moderator knows each panelist – This is one of the reasons why I don’t like it when conferences take it upon themselves to pair up moderators and panelists, but the onus is more so on the moderator doing his/her homework on the topic, participants and audience.I sat in the audience of a recent huge conference, and went to an author panel to support some friends who were on it. Not only did the moderator not know who was on the panel, she even screwed up the intro of half the panel, and didn’t direct any questions of substance to the right panelist. It made a potential great panel into a waste of time.

But don’t take my word for it, either leave a word or two of your own in the comment section below, or have a look at these highlighted tweets when I asked Twitter about what they did/didn’t like about a panel:

What are the best/worst examples of a panel you’ve seen? No need to mention the name of the event, just what went right/wrong.

  • Yes I do hate when panelists talk about themselves. If I wanted your bio I would google you.

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  • Anonymous

    I hate it when panelists spout only pie-in-the-sky theory, and no actual take-away action points. If I want vague, rambling expositories with no substance, I’ll ask my chatty 7 year old.

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  • Anonymous

    All makes great sense to me save for one thing; audience interaction. Only panelists and moderators don’t realize how much audiences want to learn more from the panel, especially about take-away and action points.
    Panels also don’t realize the audience collectively knows as much if not more than they do. It’s the interaction of learning between speakers and audience that matters.
    Q&A’s don’t cut it either.
    So, just after the half-way point I always hand it out to the audience by saying, ‘Here’s four/five things I hear the panel talk about. Please form small groups, pick one of the topics and in x minutes give us; a. your perspective, b. what you see yourself doing with this insight.’
    We then get their insights and ask the panel to comment and have them add more isnights.
    That way the panel get to see how what they are talking makes sense to the audience and build from there.

  • Chrissie D.- Piccadilly Arts

    One of the worst…a speaker that gave us time to think and jot down ideas for a dialogue…then forgot to check the time. Ten min later, she’s still babbling on with a colleague pal, not leading the presentation, and all us adults in the room were bored off our asses. We should have been playing 7Up.

    Best ever: a trained facilitator and engaging professional moderated a kick ass, high level panel discussion on family programming at the national performing arts conference this past Jan. She smacked some peeps down…lovingly…but rightfully so, to keep things moving. Everyone left inspired, with a few take away and to dos, but better – we left knowing its ok to not have all the answers right now.

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  • Rebecca Morgan, CSP, CMC

    Scott — I agree that panels can either be the highlight or lowlight of an event. Too many moderators don’t really understand their job or how to make the panel a success. I’ve been asked to moderate more and more panels because clients know I get it. I wrote a piece on my blog about how to make a panel a standout success:

    Rebecca Morgan, CSP, CMC

  • One of the Tweeters said “no hashtags” (at least, I THINK that’s what it said). What are you thoughts on using Twitter and a common hashtag during a conference or a panel?

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  • michel

    I need same one help me to make international confrance will get millons of dolars

  • These are SUPER points, Scott. The biggest thing for me, when I moderate a panel, is to remember that I am there to serve as the advocate for the audience, not as a friend to the panelists. If a panelist starts selling from the stage, I shut ’em up, because that’s what the audience would do in my place.

  • This is a great post on moderating conference panels. Those who do the same will surely find this article helpful. Thanks for sharing.

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  • This is great Scott! I am hosting a panel this week and planned the entire two hours in this same format!! Thanks to Julie Cole for sharing this with me!

  • Kenan Weaver

    How would one look into getting gigs to become a professional moderator?

    • There isn’t really a market to be a professional moderator at most conferences.

  • Michelle LaPointe

    The panelist that drives me crazy is that one man who insists on interrupting a woman on the panel, usually when she’s saying something really interesting. (Is there a word for the fear of a woman sounding as smart as a man?) Or the guy who helpfully jumps in to mansplain what she just said. Or the one who repeats exactly what the woman panelist just said like it was his own idea. Sometimes you get the same guy who does all three.

    Once I witnessed a Very Famous Guy in my industry do the repeating thing so often that by the end of the panel, all the women in the audience were laughing. We managed to pull it together for polite applause at the end, but when several of us met at the elevator we lost it, and there was much guffawing and wiping the tears from our eyes.

    I went home and canceled my order for Very Famous Guy’s book. Figured it might be smarter to find the women he cribbed it from, and buy one of theirs.