7 Tips On How to Make Your Conference Panel Rock

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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.

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