How to Ruin Your Next Conference Panel
A Recipe for Underwhelming Success
For most events, the plenary (main stage) sessions are highly polished (and oft-scripted) affairs, wherein the emcee will begin by diligently thanking sponsors, explaining housekeeping and deploying some tried and tested crowd-pleasers. Then, the president/CEO/chair will deliver a well-rounded, rehearsed and politically correct piece about the importance of the industry, the progress and achievements of the past year, and the collective challenges ahead, concluding with a message that ‘we need to think differently and innovate... I encourage you to meet new people and collaborate (and so on)...’
Then, a big-ticket keynote speaker or two will come to deliver their material. Because they are getting paid handsomely, they're unlikely to deviate from the proven formula. Thus, predictable success ensues. And thus the trajectory and tone of an event is set.
To sceptical and seasoned folk, this predictable pantomime has little impact.
But conference panels(!)—those facilitated sessions, wherein we hear pertinent perspectives on complex and contentious topics—offer the audiences of plenary sessions one of the finest gifts possible: diverse, raw, honest, flawed-yet-impassioned insight.
This is our chance to go off-script. To court entropy and chaos. To engage jollily in a bout of intellectual fisticuffs, and emerge collectively invigorated. To embrace the antifragility of questions begetting better questions. To stand at the edge of knowledge. To dabble in uncertainty and fumble with new knowledge and supposition amidst ambiguity and doubt. To dance under the rainbows, and around the abyss. To safely hazard a guess, a stab in the dark. To posit, postulate and opine as such—together.
I could go on. And I have.
Done well, the audience will be avidly attentive and on the edge of their seats.
Why? Because conference panels offer the opportunity to surprise folks, and to enrich our collective curiosity, empathy and understanding. Panels add colour to noosphere of events. It's also here we get to see that the esteemed leaders on stage are just as human as we are.* That no one truly knows what's going on, and that they, too, are grappling with some of the same questions we are. And that, ultimately, we are all just doing our best to work it out as we go.°
* If not more so. (?)
° It's through this humble grasping—as distinct from the polished success stories of olympic athletes and millionaires—that I find the most inspiration.
But Lo! Conference panels are frequently the absolute antithesis to the above. Stiff, stifled and lifeless affairs, devoid of authenticity, insight or surprise. If you've been to a few events, you'll know what I mean.
And so, in the spirit of irony and flippancy—before I unleash some practical optimism—I propose to you:
Five Surefire Ways to Ruin Your Next Conference Panel
To ensure your event's most important session is as safe, stale and forgettable as possible, make sure your panelists are prepared, serious, likeminded and authoritative. This way we can ensure your panel session is good, proper and—most importantly—right.
Very important: the next five points are pure facetiousness. I'm afraid some dimwits are going to take the following to heart. But please, let’s not.
1. The Golden Rule: Make sure your panelists have prepared.
Give them the questions in advance, so that they can prepare the appropriate answers. Be sure to give them enough time for this, so that their respective legal teams can review and censor where appropriate. If you can, organise a teleconference or two, to run through the questions together (and to avoid any awkward ‘differences of opinion’). This all helps reduce the chance that any panelist is inspired to be ‘spontaneous’—instead, most will adhere to the answers they've prepared.
2. Be professional and ‘serious’.
As the philosopher James Carse observes, ‘To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility, whatever the cost to oneself.’ Therefore, the conclusion of the panel ought be pre-ordained, to remove any possibility of surprise, so that the audience knows that we are professional and serious. This also helps to reduce any risk for the panelists.
3. Recruit likeminded people.
Reaching a preordained, neat and professional conclusion is easier if your panelists are likeminded. Therefore: strive for ‘similarity in thinking’ as much as possible. An ‘all male panel’ is the industry standard, but you can do more to enhance the monotony of things. For example: have everyone from the same age bracket, and from similar industries, levels of authority and experience. You'll find it does not take much effort at all to curate a group of people who think exactly the same as you. And also: there's nothing more assuring and validating than hearing your own beliefs echoed back to you.
4. Establish your panel as authority figures.
There are some simple things you can do to make your panel seem more impressive. For example, have them seated in a row behind a dressed table. This helps to create a barrier between them and the audience. Also, ensure that each person is introduced with their full bio. Even though people can read about this in your conference program, it will help the panelists feel important. Be polite and respectful, and everything should go smoothly. Finally—it goes without saying—but: suits and ties help to enhance the sense of unity, authority and monotony.
5. Finally: seek the ‘right’ answers.
If agreement can't be achieved collectively—usually due to failing step 3—fear not. If you have followed the golden rule (step 1) then individual panelists will have the questions in advance, and can prepare their answers accordingly. It's now simply a case of seeking the 'right' answers. This is helped by making it clear that the panel session is a finite game—something to be played for the purpose of winning. Assure them that the conversation is competitive, and that they will be judged. This will then favour the more outspoken and analytical members of your panel, further reinforcing the conventional power dynamic of our times.
And there you have it.
But dear goodness do I now feel dirty! I’m normally quite fine to both push and consume exquisite satire, though I worry that I’ve written the above in a way that’s far too subtle for the folks who need to hear this to perceive the irony. Yeesh. It’s cognitively akin to the feeling of walking through a spiderweb. Oh how it grates against me so. But I also empathise—the above seems proper and prudent. And that's the trouble—risk aversion can become quite the perversion.
Thus—to cleanse and purify!—here are some more practical and heartfelt suggestions to any event organisers wanting to harness the fullest potential of their conference panel sessions.
Five Ace Ways to Humanise & Enhance Your Next Conference Panel
Rise above the predictable banality and evoke new wonder with these 5 ways.
1. Share your intent—not your questions.
You want your panelists subscribed to the intention you have for your audience, and effectively prepared to ‘wing it’. Don’t give them the questions in advance—that will only encourage panelists to prepare perfect answers (which they’ll be wedded to). Instead, share the themes your conversation might cover, so that you might manifest their truest (most perfectly imperfect and human) contribution. Don’t do teleconferences—instead, meet in person before the panel (ideally the night before, otherwise the break before), and have the moderator build connections so that panelists feel comfy and safe.
2. Be open and playful.
A panel session is a chance to curate a diverse mix of minds, and to provide a context wherein who knows what will manifest…? This is why they can be so engaging—there’s an element of depth, discovery and surprise for the audience. Even better, when panelists surprise each other (and themselves). You may well genuinely venture into uncharted territory, together. And this is fascinating (if people are open to it).
3. The REAL Golden Rule—curate diversity.
At its heart, a conference panel is about diversity of thinking. It’s about enrichening our empathy and understanding, by highlighting multiple perspectives and pathways amidst the uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity of things. Yes, diversity is more than just gender. But women are 50% of the population—it’s an ideal place to start.* So for the love of cheesecake make an effort. Buck against the stale patriarchal paradigm that is our default. It is otherwise just plain embarrassing.
* But please, don’t stop there.
4. Unearth the human in your panelists.
In the quest for professionalism*—and in the desire for nothing to go wrong—panels are oft-neutered impotent before they even begin. Instead of fluffing the feathers of folks’ sense of self-importance—use humour to level the playing field. Make your panelists real, and relatable. This enhances the connection audiences will have with your panelists, and will have them listen more.
* Is your industry cursed with professionalism? No of course not. I understand. You'd never say that. But in any event, read this fine article by Jaxzyn, wherein they ‘…rage furious at Professionalism, hoist the flag for Human, and unmask the myth that the two are mutually exclusive’.
5. Make your panel wonderful.
Here’s an apt thought from Marshall Rosenberg (pioneer of non-violent communication)—‘Instead of playing the game “Making Life Wonderful”, we often play the game called “Who's Right”. Do you know that game? It's a game where everybody loses.’ Avoid the temptation of making your panel a competitive game of ‘Who’s Right’—for there are no right answers, only the pursuit of better questions. Thus: play the infinite game, for the purpose of continuing the play.*
Ah, that feels better. Verily. The world is righted. But oh, what’s this? An odd feeling of practicality. I normally resist the urge to descend into such—and hardly ever peddle in the small beer that is ‘tips’—but hey, why not?
Three Practical 'Tips' for your next Conference Panel
What’s this? Three listicles nested in one article? Jason, you are a madman.
1. Give everyone a headset or lapel mic.
The worst thing you can do* is share one microphones across your panel. Why? Well: you are effectively gifting a single panellist with a power stick. They’ll either dominate it, or meekly play the role of passing it on between folks. This disrupts and delays the natural flow of your conversation, hobbling momentum. Also: it makes it difficult for quips and banter—the seasoning of any good conversation—to manifest between panelists. Instead, we are more likely to experience sequenced monologues, which defeats the point of a panel.
* Actually, if you have a vivd imagination like I do, this is far from the worst thing you can do.
2. Consider how panelists are seated.
I used to believe a raised (bar) stool was the ideal throne for any panelist. It grants approachability without diminishing authority, and allows a panelists to easily pivot to whomever is speaking. But then I was kindly directed to an article that made me realise such an arrangement may well be very uncomfortable for some folk. And so I now say: please consider how panelists are seated. You want everyone feeling super comfy. And upbeat. Try to avoid low tub chairs—wherein a gent might be plonked in recline, pants riding up, socks exposed—as these tend to create a lethargic air. Finally, steer clear of dressed tables and rowed seating—this vastly diminishes non-verbal communication between panellists, and establishes a clear, dualistic barrier between the panelists and the audience.
3. Question how you question.
I suggest you solicit questions from the audience before your panel commences. Technology (pre-conference surveys, Twitter even) is the great enabler here. If your moderator is particularly adept, they may even integrate pertinent questions (from the audience, via an intermediary) during the panel session.
Sometimes panels are run with the intent to take audience questions toward the end. This is almost always a rushed affair, and is fraught for several reasons. First, audience members may not be as attuned to the wider relevance and flow as your moderator—and may instead choose to self-promote their own opinion, target an individual panelist, or ask something that lowers the calibre of the conversation and the energy of the room. But even if they ask a delightfully thoughtful question, in service to the room—they’re still going to be greeted with every panelist squint-saluting them (to shade their eyes from the downlighting). Then, due to time pressure, no panelist—individually or collectively—can give the question the honour it deserves.
Well, there we have it! I hope this is of use to you (or anyone you know who may be hosting a conference panel or event).