Toward Less Painful Panels

I recently attended a panel discussion that could have been a much more powerful learning experience.  An inadequate session design and a limiting room set shackled the interesting panelists.  Panels are always tricky, but they are a staple of industry conferences, so it is high time we made them more compelling. 

How Panels Commonly Unfold
Marketing for most panel discussions highlights the topic, maybe the questions that will be explored, and the panelists who will speak.  The actual programs usually begin with logistics announcements, promotional info, and introductions of each panelist.  At the program I recently attended this ate up 20% of the session time block: unacceptable.

A moderator then poses a question and often each panelist responds.  Better moderators help connect individual responses and/or offer some thoughtful follow-up questions or comments.  This is repeated numerous times for the bulk of the program and then the floor is opened for Q&A. Generally only a handful of people in the room get to pose a question.  

In this framework, I feel lucky as a participant if I get 2-3 insights to take away when much more is possible in a 90-minute session.  Plus the format is repetitive and flat, leaving audience members sitting passively for far too long and then only giving a few individuals a chance to pose questions.

What Panels Could (Should) Be

As a learner I want to hear the equivalent of content concentrate not diluted generalities ... insightful and provocative comments from a diverse (that's a key word) mix of panelist perspectives and experience a lively conversation among audience members and the panelists.  Ideally it feels free-flowing instead of the slow staccato rhythm many panels engender.  

Much can be improved in moderator and panelists prep.  While Guy Kawasaki and others have offered great tips on being a better panelist, we really need to rethink the conditions in which panelists and audience members are placed.  Otherwise we are just making the best of a less than ideal situation. 

We must better equip the audience to engage and interact. 

Get likely attendees in the conversation sooner by having panelists share some of their ideas/content  (1) in the marketing materials, and (2) in a panel preview.  By including a key insight or assertion from each panelist in the marketing material, you can arouse more interest (and probably attendance) than just the usual listing of names and titles.  It promotes a flavor of the conversation that might unfold instead of just the credentials of those conversing.

A panel preview should then be shared fairly close to the panel date, offering each panelist an expanded—though still concise—platform to share more views.  The preview could be a short YouTube video, a few slides with synched audio, a couple of social share, or a PDF file with brief written commentary.  The goal is to seed the conversation in advance so that it can begin immediately when the program starts.

Participants should Tweet or submit questions and reactions based on this advance sharing of content.  The panel I attended said no one did so for their discussion, but I cannot find anywhere that we were invited to contribute ... not in the marketing and not in my confirmation, two places where that invitation should be prominently displayed.  

Questions and comments could again be collected on-site using social media or being written on index cards.  Heck, let's have people write them on sheets of paper, crumple them up, and then throw them at panelists to get the energy level higher in the room.  Whatever it takes.  Let's get as many voices into the conversation even if they are "voiced" by the moderator on behalf of the participants. 

We have to design the format and the room for conversation not exposition.

Panel room sets are as predictable and outdated as wood paneling in your basement.  Both need to be replaced and refreshed.  Straight-line seating on risers immediately leads to personal pontification delivered from one to the masses.  And when you are a panelist on a stage, it's difficult to connect with people seated parallel to you, individuals you can't even look at directly.
  • Let's try setting a room fishbowl with the panelists in a center circle, facing each other in a conversational boxing ring.  Include extra chairs among the panelists that audience members can claim to briefly join the conversation.   
  • How about a fashion show set with panelists roaming the runway sharing their viewpoints with each other and the participants?
  • Maybe mimic the House of Commons environment and have panelists take center stage on all four sides, facing each other and surrounded by audience members. 
  • Or let them really get on their soapbox and stand on soapboxes stationed among the audience members and recalling the town criers of yore. 
  • If you must use a traditional room set, at least launch the program with each panelist using Pecha Kucha or an Ignite format to introduce all of their thinking ideas in 6 minutes or less and then open the floor for facilitated conversation.
When I attend a panel, I come to learn from the experts, not just listen to them.  It's time we design for an engaging conversation, one that our current mindset and room set rarely allow.

P.S.  About panelist intros.  I don't want to listen to them voice basic biographical info that I could be given in writing or that could be displayed on the screen.  Let them share something personal, something that allows us to connect to them as people instead of their resumes.

This is an update of an earlier post.


Jeff Hurt said...

Amen! Amen! Amen! Thanks for writing this post about doing panels differently. Let's hope more conference organizers and meeting professionals read it.

I find that most panel presentations are just four to six talking heads that don't take into account the audience as learners. For me, it's just a monologue turned dialogue on steroids between the panelist and the moderator. We often justify panels as a way to give several people a chance to express their views.

Why not give every audience member a chance to express their views? That takes a different strategy.

Panels are more for transmitting information and opinions and less about learning. If we put the focus back on the participant--the learner--we think differently about this experience.

Is the panel the best option for adult learning to occur? No. Is requiring the audience to sit passively for 60- to 90- minutes the best way to remember, retain and learn information? No.

So who are panels really benefitting? In my opinion, they benefit the panelist more than the audience.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...


You make a really good point that one of the criteria of a successful panel should be allowing more space for participants to express their views. I do appreciate the fact that panels often convene very knowledgeable individuals we might not otherwise get to interact with, but if it's done to the exclusion of ample participant engagement, it really isn't worth the time.

A rare exception (for me) would be if the conversation among panelists is so compelling or so provocative that i am happy to have been given an opportunity to eavesdrop on it. In that instance, I still get to learn even if the format isn't what I might normally find to be engaging.

Joan Eisenstodt said...

Ah, two of my favorites "J"s!

Yes to you both and for me, an aural learner, even if I learn from a compelling conversation among others, I will have and want to ask questions and make comments - so that the content will become more relevant to/for me.

This then moves to the idea of a panel - short in length - may be appropriate and after, smaller group discussions to look at lessons learned.

WHEN will it ever happen that we meet learners' needs? I am getting greyer of head by the moment!

KiKi L'Italien said...

Thanks for writing this post, Jeffrey!

How refreshing it would be to attend a "panel discussion" and be amazed or surprised by what ensued. I would LOVE to see something completely different than every other panel discussion I've ever seen.

Keep raising the bar!

Wes Trochlil said...

Jeffrey, you touched on something but didn't go far enough. Poor panels are due to poor moderators. Moderating requires good interviewing skills and most people (including most moderators) don't have them.

I've been complimented many times for actually creating a discussion as a moderator, rather than just "ask the question, get the answers, move on."

And of course, as you point out, all the logistical stuff needs to go away.

Wes Trochlil
Effective Database Management, LLC

Author of "Put Your Data to Work: 52 Tips and Techniques for Effectively Managing Your Database," published by ASAE and available here:

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thanks Wes. A good moderator indeed makes a difference, but that role still can't save a poorly designed program. I think we need to rethink the entire design before we consider the best role for a moderator.

Greg Ruby said...

A well written and thought out post. I would absolutely love to see this happen, particularly for the meeting industry events. However, until that one brave soul decides to challenge typical convention, I just don't see it happening any time soon. Until then, let's have another "State of the Industry" panel, please......

John Potterton, CMP said...

The role of the moderator is key and central to creating the experience which will engage and srimulate all participants from the members in the audience to the expert panelists. The moderator needs to be the voice, mind and heart of the audience so that he or she will engage in conversation and ask meaningful questions which make an emotional and mental connection. In addition to preparing the audience before the meeting and creating the physical experience at the meeting, it is the moderator that pulls it all together.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...


Everything you've said is of course true, but if the room set, agenda, and overall session design aren't supportive of a conversational and interactive experience, there is only so much even the best moderator can do. We can't leave the success of a multi-presenter conversation on one person's shoulders.