Panels are dead ? – Not quite – Just prepare them better

Mary Hodder has a go at the panel format when attending Les Blogs last week: Panels are Dead.

For me that is. 

I’m sitting here at a conference that I flew all the way to Paris
for.. for two days, and damned if it isn’t full of panels, broadcast
mode all the way, telling the audience how it is. And well.. it’s so
freaking undynamic. Because it’s not a discussion. These are bloggers.
They know a lot. They know what it is. These 300 people make media
every day on their blogs and yet, panels are here giving us time to
email the office, our cats or the mailman about a critical lost
postcard.

This audience is creative, bright, thoughtful and our brains are
being numbed to death by one-way talk about how blogs are about losing
legacy control and we’re all taking it back. Somewhere there is a
tragi-comedy in here. It’s time for a revolt. Please, please, please
can we do all conferences from now on differently? For the love of
transparency, aliveness, I hope we can.

Proposed:

1. Ditch the panels.
2. One leader per room.. moderating an active discussion by everyone in the room by, asking questions and interacting. 
3. IF we do panels, any time there are more people lined up at the mic,
than are on the panel, the panel and the people at the mic have to
switch places.

[...]

One of a few commenters, Elisa Camahort points out that Mary’s proposal might be appropriate in a few cases, but not all of them. She also ventures:

But I also think Mary attends a rather uniquely large number of
conferences per year, and has seen the same faces, heard the same
spiels and suffered through the same debates a disproportionately high
number of times to the rest of the world, outside perhaps the couple
hundred folks she’s with now. The ennui she is suffering from is,
perhaps, a luxury of the conference elite.

I agree with many of Elisa’s points. The optimal format for a panel is determined by the size of
the audience, the balance of knowledge (or lack thereof) amongst the
participants, and most importantly, the "walkout expectation" of the session. In the case of Les Blogs, not all attendees were bloggers and had prior exposure to all topics. However it is true that some sessions would have fared better as straightforward tutorials, or if they had been prepared more thoroughly.

This is actually a segue into one of the issues I see with many panels: too
often do we see panelists meeting with their moderator a few minutes
before the start, just to get their names right. These panels are often disjointed, just touching on a number of issues without addressing any of them in detail. Unless the moderator is himself a domain expert, and knows all the people on his/her panel, the lack of preparation will show and rarely lead to a captivating discussion.

At Les Blogs, I agreed upfront with my panelists that we would not get into the "Us vs. Them" debate that generally takes place when dealing with a topic like Bloggers vs. MSM. Instead, we decided to talk about how each of the represented entities had leveraged blogging and what was "unique" about them. I suggested to have each of us introduce their perspective for a few minutes, address a few generic issues of strategy, legal responsibility and commercial aspects. And interact with the audience very quickly through the backchannel, and then questions. In retrospect, I should have cut my own "set the scene" presentation shorter, and ask Jochen to do the same with his (even though his perspective of the German blogosphere was most interesting). But jumping directly into a discussion would not have worked because of the lack of "common ground" to build upon.

This is IMHO another issue of too many panels: too much time is spent building this understanding of common grounds, which does not leave enough time for genuine discussion/argumentation.

An approach solving this would be to develop a pre-event write-up including bios of the panelists,
pointers to relevant background information, and goals/expectations of the panel.
This was partially done for BloggerCon III, and helped participants to choose the session they would attend. As to the discussion format itself, as Elisa points out, it worked great in certain cases (Mary and Rebecca’s sessions for example) but not in many others. And I seem to recall that the smaller and focused the audience was,  the more effective the format.


  • http://workerbeesblog.blogspot.com Elisa Camahort

    Interesting first-hand view, given your recent moderation.
    Something we’re planning to do for BlogHer Conference ’05 (http://www.blogher.org) is have a pre-Conference training session for moderators and panelists on how to foster interactivity and avoid the “talking heads” syndrome. It also has been great to start discussion threads on our blog for the various proposed panels, so attendees can already hear not only what the people on the organizing side have to say about a topic, but can get in on the discussion themselves.
    Now, of course we’ll have to see what impact it has when July 31st rolls around, and the conference has closed. I’m sure Mary will weigh in if she is disappointed in the outcome :)

  • http://500hats.typepad.com Dave McClure

    Jeff -
    i think panels can work, however the moderator can’t be a pushover. they need to be actively engaged, and challenge the panelists.
    on the contrary, i think panels can be great — assuming everyone isn’t nodding heads & agreeing. getting competitors on a panel and creating some stimulating points of conversation can be one of the best ways to present information.
    and it certainly makes for juicy theater ;)
    - dmc

  • http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL David Berlind

    I’m on Mary’s side. I’ve been to hundreds if not thousands of panel discussions. I’ve been in the audience. I’ve sat on the panels. And I’ve moderated. And I’ve passed out from boredom. 99 percent of the time, they’re snoozers and the interesting part doesn’t happen until the open Q&A starts. Sadly, there’s never much time for the Q&A. Sometimes, it doesn’t even happen. The leader facilitated discussion of the unconference format is like jumping straight to the Q&A. That’s when it really gets interesting.