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Conference panels: Boring or brilliant

Conference chair illustration

Conference panels can either be the highlight of the day, or a yawn-fest with a room full of people checking their handhelds.

What a shame that so often these bright and accomplished individuals are not showcased better. From my point of view, it’s all about the moderation. I’ve had some success moderating panels, and I’m here to share my Top 10 Tips.

#1 Be clear about your objectives

As a moderator, my objective is to hold a stimulating conversation that the audience can listen in on, that makes the speakers look like rock stars and keeps the audience riveted to the conversation. My plan for the session is totally geared toward that objective. And I tell the audience a version of this objective, to publicly set the stage.

If you are planning to have a conference panel, know what you are striving for, or you are doomed to mediocrity before you start.

#2 Find a nice non-moderator role for the sponsors

Executives at the sponsor companies may wish to moderate your panel. This is generally not a good idea, for the reasons outlined in #10.

Instead, you can give them a place on the panel. Or you can let them introduce the session, or introduce the panel members.

#3 Keep the introductions short

People hate introductions that are more than a sentence or two long. When you have three or four people to introduce, it’s painful. If your panelists are well known, a lengthy introduction is even more of a waste. The more well-known the individual, the less we need to hear. Consider how long an introduction needs to be for Mick Jagger, Angela Merkel or Bill Gates? What about the Pope?

If you don’t happen to be well-known, a lengthy introduction is worse, because no one cares. Far better to showcase people actually being interesting, and let attendees look them up in the program or online.

#4 Prepare, prepare, prepare

As the moderator, I plan to spend several hours preparing. This would include reading current information on the subject of the panel, in order to suggest timely topics.

I also try to learn more about the individual panelists. It’s nice to talk to them in advance if possible, in part to put them at ease, and also to get a sense of their individual style. This may only be possible a short time before the panel, such as at a reception or even breakfast the day of the event.

Executives generally want to know in advance the types of questions you will be asking them. They want to be assured you don’t plan to buttonhole them on something controversial, or something they can’t answer, such as matters before regulatory bodies, matters covered by securities regulations, pricing, new product announcements, or secret sauce ingredients.

It’s a good idea to have more content than you can cover in the allotted time. You don’t want to be thinking up topics on the spot — far better to throw away material you don’t have time for.

#5 Start with the most interesting topics

The opener needs to be some kind of short statement about the current landscape from the panelists’ point of view. But then move quickly into the most interesting content. Is some new economy player challenging the industry, like Google, Apple or Uber? Why wait to discuss it? In fact, one of your panelists will likely mention this subject in their first breath, making it easy for you to pick up on the topic with a followup question.

If a topic you plan to ask about comes up, that’s the perfect time to ask about it. Saying: “I’m going to ask about that later” is energy-draining. Instead, if you must, say: “Fascinating, and let’s come back to that in a moment. But before we leave this exciting topic, can you just tell us your thoughts about ….”

# 6 Encourage conversation; avoid serial interviewing

You want the panelists engaged with each other, not waiting for your next question. It’s a good idea to tell them this up front. It’s also a good idea to invite them to redirect a question they think is better answered by a different panelist. All of this keeps the conversation lively for the audience.

Decide which panelists will have the most interesting take on a topic, and direct a question to one or two of them at most. If you want everyone to answer the topic, be sure to restate it as you go along, drawing on what was said before.

For example: If the original question was about the impact of new technologies on the widget industry, when you come to the third panelist, you can simply restate. “Bob says there has been a devastating impact, while Julia says the biggest challenges are for smaller players. What’s your take on this topic? Are we all doomed, or is it just the smallest firms? Who should be worried?”

If everyone seems to agree on something, there’s little to discuss. Having multiple panelists say the same thing is just dull.

Under no circumstances should you get into anything that sounds like: “On to Question 3. Let’s start with Jill this time. Blah, blah, blah.”

#7 No slides, no tables

If the presenters are using slides, you are not having a conversation. It’s not a panel, it’s a collection of short presentations. Main-stage panels just should not have slides. If there is something that absolutely, positively must have a visual, keep it under the moderator’s control if possible. Or the AV team at the back of the room. One slide, show it, then kill it.

I also dislike having people seated at a table, which puts distance between the audience and the group. It also means you cannot sit in a semi-circle. A group of chairs is a much better idea. Bar-chairs that put people up a little higher can work really well.

A moderator at a podium is not facilitating a conversation, they will inevitably hold a serial interview. So no podium, except possibly for the person introducing the session.

#8 Handling questions from the floor

Audiences need time to formulate a question, so I plan a question of my own to avoid dead air time and give the audience a chance to think. It’s a good idea to restate the question so that everyone knows what was asked.

If you have someone with a roving microphone, encourage them to hang on to it, not give it away to an audience member. This is a good way to discourage speechifying under the guise of a question.

Your moderator role doesn’t stop at this point. If the attendee did not direct the question to a specific person, you need to manage that. You might also ask an obvious follow-up question.

#9 Keep it fresh and a little off balance

Have one or two quirky questions, or at least fresh wording for the topic. If the topic is industry disruption, ask who should be refreshing their resume? If the topic is networking, ask about their biggest networking mistake.

Executives on panels can be good at surfing past a topic they don’t want to discuss by sticking to their media lines, as they have seen politicians do many times. Try not to accept this as the final word on a topic, while stopping short of acting like a criminal prosecutor. Gentle humor can be your friend here. The audience will appreciate that you are trying to go deeper on a topic.

#10 Get a skilled moderator

Few people have this skill. I have confirmed this personally from many hours of boredom at conferences, and I bet you have, too.

There are a few options for getting a great panel moderator, if you don’t happen to be one yourself.

  • Professional qualitative researchers are often good at this because they are used to carefully planning a spontaneous conversation
  • People who speak for a living are often good at this, because they are accustomed to carefully engineering an experience from the stage
  • Professional facilitators are also used to creating carefully structured events where other people do most of the talking
  • Other professional interviewers, such as radio or television personalities

None of this is a guarantee, but these groups have the right set of professional skills. Most random executives do not.

If you can find one of these people who also has some knowledge of the content under discussion, you are in great shape. If they aren’t conversant with the subject matter, you can brief them on the hot topics of the day much more easily than you can teach someone how to moderate.

Fortunately, there are likely to be qualitative researchers and facilitators who have worked frequently in your industry, so you should be able to find someone who fits this requirement.

Now go out there and surprise people with your fantastic panel!