Are Your Conference Panels Stuck In A Time Warp?

1973 Ford Country Squire

Watch a re-run of That 70’s Show and you’ll notice that paneling was all the rage back then.

It was affordable, easy to install and a sure sign of homeowner coolness. It was so cool, we even slapped it on the family sedan. Today, paneling is a major turnoff for home buyers. [Can you see where I’m heading with this post?]

Years ago, conference organizers took a shine to panels of a different kind. The ones featuring experts perched on stools, each delivering mini-monologues. Just as wood paneling was an easy way to finish a den or basement, “people” paneling seemed to be an easy way to dress up a conference session.

Time For A Conference Panel Renovation

Regrettably, there are too few renovation projects underway for conference panels. Many still see this as an effective model for delivering learning, but they couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here are three conference panel myths in serious need of a reality check:

It’s a fast and easy way to showcase a diverse group of experts.
Reality Check: Most panels are comprised of like-minded people. Hence, the endless head nodding and “me too” comments.

It’s easier to recruit panelists, because it requires little-to-no prep time.
Reality Check: Panelists who wing it are a big turn-off.

Panel discussions are organic. Great ones aren’t planned — they just happen.
Reality Check: If you’re watching a riveting panel discussion, chances are there was a smart moderator who prepped panelists and mapped out nearly every discussion point.

A Four-Point Improvement Plan

While I’m not advocating that we ditch the panel, I think it’s time to rethink and refresh our approach. Here’s a four-point improvement plan to consider:

1. Secure an outstanding moderator.

Many people recruit panelists first, then find a moderator. Better to flip that and start with a strong moderator. You need someone who’s a great facilitator, will own the experience, and is unafraid to reel in any panelists who might hijack the conversation.

2. Recruit panelists who are credible, yet hold opposing viewpoints.

When everybody agrees on nearly every point, audience attention starts to drift. Introduce a few hot topics with thoughtful debate and your attendees will sit up and take notice. They’ll also remember more of what transpired. Be careful not to over stack your panel. More than three panelists and people will have a tough time following the discussion.

3. Coach panelists, draft best practices, and make sure everyone is on board.

If you can get panelists to participate in several conference calls in advance, that’s ideal. If schedules collide, have one-on-one prep calls. Each panelist should invest four to eight hours preparing talking points and supporting stories or analogies. Once you’re all onsite, gather the group for a pregame huddle. If a panelist can’t commit to bring their A-game, recruit someone else or trim your panel.

4. Bring the audience into the discussion.

All too often, we ask attendees to save their questions for the end. Better to spark audience participation right from the start. Conduct relevant polls throughout the session and for those heated debates, break away at a critical point and toss out a discussion question to your audience. The more you dial up audience participation, the better the learning.

An outstanding panel discussion will be enlightening, entertaining, and should leave your audience wanting more. For this reason, as you wrap up for the session, why not call out a time and place where everyone can meet with panelists to continue the conversation?

Why do you think conference organizers rely so heavily on panel discussions? What suggestions do you have for refreshing this content model?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2013.

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  1. Simon says:

    Fantastic metaphor Dave… Could we look at point 4 in a slightly different way? Is the audience the ultimate high value, specialized panel? Are 400 heads better than 4? That would certainly assure point 2 in terms of opposing views… But then you’d definitely have to follow point 1 and have a very dynamic moderator, as well of course tooling them up with technology to pull off a ‘mega-panel’! Could end in disaster, but conversely could generate a hugely insightful, inclusive discussion…

  2. Dave Lutz says:

    Simon, thanks for sharing your thoughts. The knowledge gap between panels and participants has shrunk quite a bit…so yes, agree that 400 heads are better than 4.

    To best tap the wisdom of the crowd, we need people planted in the audience (or volunteers with instructions) who help facilitate small group discussions and curate them for the more insightful discussion that you envision.

    Do you think facilitated small group discussions would help increase the chances of success?

  3. Simon says:

    yes Dave – I’m really a fan of anything that changes the dynamic of a meeting from a broadcast to a contributory environment, if planned and executed effectively. And of course small group work is more easily facilitated than the whole room; even the most dynamic of audiences often need a little nudge to get going…

    That being said, I do think that even in utilizing small groups there has to be opportunity for the proper sharing with the rest of the group of the outputs from those smaller discussions, rather than just lip service… that will enable light bulb moments throughout the room as all ideas captured are bounced around.

    The most powerful results I have seen are when a real consensus and agreement of the actions needed beyond the meeting room are identified. No ambiguity is taken home by participants; they all return to the workplace with very clear direction as individuals and as an organization… that is only achievable with all attendees contribution.

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      ‘@Simon great points! Creating those light bulb moments is critical especially when it is done efficiently and without duplication.

  4. […] recent post on Velvet Chainsaw’s blog, Are Your Conference Panels Stuck In A Time Warp? reminded us of how painful panel discussions can be. The hardest part of being an audience member […]

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