Stop that sucking sound

November 21, 2006 § 2 Comments

Over the weekend, Tonya asked me to
help her write a piece of ‘how to make conference panels better’. The
result was a piece called Stop that sucking sound. The
full text is included here:

Let’s face it: most conference panels suck. With dozens (or hundreds) of eager listeners packed in like cinema-goers, the typical panel kicks off with a long recitation on the resumes of everyone on the dais. Audience eagerness immediately wanes . The first speaker then launches into a text-packed PowerPoint, going into every single detail of Topic X, and exceeding the alloted time by double. Half the audience has now tuned out. Three more speakers and three more long PowerPoints later, everyone in the audience is thinking about the weekend or the deadline they are about to miss. The panel chair apologizes that the speakers took so much time and
explains that there won’t be a chance for audience questions as
planned. Everyone shuffles out, tired, confused, bored. On to the
next panel.

The problem with panels is not that the speakers
or ideas are bad (one definition of suck), but rather that the way
most people run panels sucks the energy out of the room
. The
result is bored listeners, ineffective transmission of ideas and,
ultimately, the failure to meet the goals that the panel set out to
achieve in the first place: creating an engaging dialogue about
interesting ideas.

The good news is that it isn’t hard to make
panels better
. All it takes is a little practice and willingness
to experiment (or, better yet, a willingness to change your
definition of ‘panel’. below). The following is a list of tips for
panel chairs who want run more engaging sessions:

  1. Pick a clear, interesting and UNIFYING
    The topic you pick should be focused enough that get the
    panelists talking about the same thing, rather than their own thing.
    For example: ‘how are users benefiting from open source in your
    company?’ If you leave it too open, like ‘open source and your
    company’ you are likely to get a mish mash of things that really
    don’t relate.
  1. Encourage (or enforce!) short, snappy,
    on-topic presentations.
    Assuming there is time for people to ask
    questions later, five to ten minutes should be enough for any
    panelist to get her basic ideas across. Set time limits accordingly,
    and let panelists know in advance that you will ruthlessly enforce
    the time limit. Also, point people web resources on making good
    presentations. (below)
  1. Create real dialogue amongst the panelists
    Dialogue is inherently more interesting
    than monologue. It breaks up the monotony of one person speaking. It
    also ensures that information flow is demand driven. People asking
    questions and making counter points naturally draw out information
    interesting to them, which means panelists don’t have to guess what
    people what to hear.
  1. … and with the audience. This
    principle applies doubly so to the audience. Letting the audience
    engage early and often leads to more interesting and responsive
    sessions. As a rule, at least 50% of time in a panel session should
    be left for answering questions and hearing ideas from the audience.
    You can even put three minutes up front in your session to ask:
    ‘what do people want hear about?’ session for three minutes. This
    kind of audience interaction doesn’t mean panelists talk less. It
    does mean what they say is likely to be more relevant.
  1. Hold a conference call to get on the same
    Preparation is essential if you want the ideas above to
    work. A con call amongst panelists can go a long way towards
    ensuring people have a common understanding of the theme and agree
    to the ground rules. You can even use a call like this to rehearse
    the presentations. This lets your offer constructive feedback, and
    also let’s you find ‘problem panelists’ early.

For panel chairs with even more courage, things
can get even better if you are willing to drop the traditional panel
altogether. A few simple good examples:

  1. Talk Shows: With the stage organized
    like the set from Oprah, panelists are interviewed by the panel
    chair. This allows them to offer relaxed, off the cuff insights and
    to interact with each other. Also, just like Oprah, it’s easy to add
    audience questions into the mix. This technique is good for people
    who want to trash PowerPoint presentations but still want the feel
    of a panel.
  1. SpeedGeeks and Cracker Barrels:
    The room is divided into ‘stations’ where small groups
    of people hear presentations and ask questions on a particular
    topic. After a short time (5 min = speedgeek / 20 min = cracker
    barrel), the participants move to another station for another
    presentation. The presenters stay put. This format is excellent you
    have a lot of people with interesting presentations and you want to
    avoid the ‘boring buzz’ effect of ten people on a panel doing
    incoherent slide shows.
  1. Open Skill Shares: Again, the room is
    divided into stations, this time with people offering advice or
    informal training on a particular skill (e.g. how to write a good
    blog posting). The audience members simply find the stations they
    are most interested in. Once they learn what they want to learn,
    they move on and find another interesting station. Great instead of
    a panel on practical advice or techniques.

Whether you choose to spice up a traditional panel
or do something more radical, your role as panel chair is to make the
session as much like a rock ‘n’ roll show or Baptist revival meeting
as possible. You want everyone — the audience, the panelists, the
chair — excited and sitting on the edge of their seats, ready to
passionately shout out whatever comes to mind. What you don’t want is
for people to feel like they are watching television. Sadly, most
panels feel like a local TV news interview show from your worst

Resources worth reading:

  1. Wikipedia page on unconferences. Lots of good
    links to open and innovative conference techniques.
  1. PowerPoint and Presentation Tips.
    Links to great articles on good and bad slideware.
  1. Lessig Method. PowerPoint tips, including:
    ‘it’s not the size of your deck that counts.”
  1. Aspiration SpeedGeek Guide. Step
    by step speedgeeking info from the pros.
  2. Top 10 Best Presentations Ever. Online videos
    that speak for themselves.

This document will be used to brief panel chairs for this years Canadian Social
Enterprise Summit. I expect we will also use it for other purposes. I
am deeply interested in comments on this so we can improve it. If you
have ideas, please let me know.

§ 2 Responses to Stop that sucking sound

  • Lena says:

    Hola! We’ve also used storytelling in panels, when we absolutely have to have them. We tell panelists to present a real life story that covers most of their ideas and concepts, and encourage them to include carachters, time shifts, descriptions of context and location. It makes it a bit more interesting.

  • kookimebux says:

    Hello. And Bye. πŸ™‚

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