How to prevent the pitiful panel

bored_audience_image_thumb1One guy in the audience fell asleep. Fell asleep! He gave up half his morning to attend a panel that was supposed to make him smarter and he fell asleep.  During the Q&A section, another person in the audience asked a question. The eager expression on his face quickly turned to dumbfounded as one panelist rambled aimlessly never veering anywhere near an intelligent answer.

I witnessed both of the above during a couple of recent panels I sat on. In the last few months I’ve been a member of, attended, or watched on video a number of panels on everything from digital creative to social media to crowdsourcing. Some have been great. Others less so. But it has occurred to me that there are simple steps we can all take to produce a panel that’s actually praiseworthy.

Panelists:  Be prepared, don’t ramble, give your audience gifts of wisdom

I think every panelist should start by thinking, “What are the five things that people in the audience will write down, take away, and actually be able to use.”  Really, this isn’t about you, it’s about them. What are you going to share? How will you make them smarter?  If you think in those terms, you’ll have the focus you need to be both effective and impressive. Second, anticipate the questions the audience might ask. That way you have clear, knowledgeable  — and above all brief — answers ready to go. Take these two steps as part of your preparation and you’ll avoid committing one of the two gravest sins you can commit as a panelist:  rambling.  (In the name of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve been guilty of this myself.) I hope it goes without saying that the very worst sin is shilling your company and its services. Please don’t be that guy. If you’re really smart and offer value – the point of being a panelist to begin with — folks will ideally come to you.

Moderators:  Control the conversation and stay tuned to the audience

It’s easy to make a list of questions, put them in order and ask them one at a time. But it’s harder to control, steer and navigate the discussion from a beginning to an end with a logical flow that makes sense and takes the audience on a journey. Yet that is your role. You don’t want the panel meandering. So, you need to know when to interrupt (politely), when to stop a ramble, when to challenge a point, and how to extract contrary viewpoints from the panel members. Equally important is to sense the audience at all times. Are they interested? Or fidgety. Writing things down? Or nodding off. Prepare not only by having that all important list of questions, but a clear sense of what you want your angle to be. Think like a reporter who interviews lots of people but has in his or her mind where she wants the story to go.  And if you haven’t seen it, watch Frost/Nixon. It’s a one on one, but you’ll get the point.

Audience:  Get involved, have challenging questions, don’t be intimidated

I’m always surprised how few people in the audience ask questions. You came because you’re interested, right?  If you don’t get what you want and need from the panel, ask. Don’t worry whether or not anyone else in the audience things your question is dumb or believes you should already know that, ask anyway. If a panelist is unclear or rambles instead of clarifies – hopefully they won’t if they read this post – ask for clarification. Better yet, if it’s allowed, feel free to enter the conversation in the middle of the panel’s discussion. It will keep them on their toes and you’ll get what you came for. Finally, give constructive feedback. If a panelist or moderator does a good job, tell them. And if they disappointed you, tell them so as well, along with a thought or two on what you think would have made it better. They’ll appreciate it. I know I would.

What do you think?  Thoughts on how to be a better panelist, moderator or audience?

24 comments
Carolyn Elefant
Carolyn Elefant

The importance of a moderator to a great panel is usually overlooked. Often, moderator positions are given to people as token rewards, without any thought to whether they can do the job. A good moderator will (1) enforce deadlines strictly; (2) facilitate discussion amongst panelists and (3) focus on the panelists, not himself and (4) keep the flow of questions from the audience. The moderator is more important than the speaker or a hot audience.
.-= Carolyn Elefant´s last blog ..One False Move Can Cost You Your Practice...And How You Can Avoid It =-.

Andrea Goldman
Andrea Goldman

I am so glad someone finally brought up Powerpoint! In my experience it is rarely, if ever, done well. It is just a signal to stop paying attention. Organizers are always shocked when I don't have a Powerpoint presentation, but I usually get really good reviews. I would avoid it unless you can be creative and interesting.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

Great advice Edward! I think when people participate on panels they assume that since they're not required to formally present, that they don't have to prepare. It's all too common, all too obvious, and in my mind it disrespects the audience. If you want to be part of a panel, prepare and bring your A-game. The audience deserves no less.
.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Lessons Learned =-.

Steven Levy
Steven Levy

Good post. As a panelist, I really want the audience to ask questions -- especially if they come up with a question for which I don't have a practiced answer, which offers the best way of creating a dialog among the audience, me, and the other panelists (is that a trialog?).

I keep trying to start or join a no-PPT movement, without much luck. Slides should be reserved for introductions (so the audience gets the names and contact info right), a brief agenda, and any illustrations (no titles or bullet points) needed -- e.g., if you're talking about social media, you might use a screenshot of TwitterDeck or HootSuite to illustrate a point. I love PowerPoint, but using it for bullet points behind a speaker is like carrying a baseball glove to watch a football game.
.-= Steven Levy´s last blog ..Legal Project Management Tools =-.

Simon
Simon

To Mariano: yes, sometimes i attend a panel which is not "right" because sometime the panelists do not get the theme at all. I wish, that panelists do reject to go to the panel if they are not realy interested in the theme. Some panelists look like they just want to be on a panel - doesn't matter what the panel is all about. If you are not really interessted in what the panel is all about - Don't be a panelist!

Dixie Gillaspie
Dixie Gillaspie

I've been the audience, the moderator and the panelist (not simultaneously of course) and I'd like to add one more thought - if the panelists have actually taken time to acquaint themselves with each other, with their individual areas of expertise, style, etc... AND if the panelists are gracious and audience focused enough to allow the appropriate person to give the first answer or viewpoint, the convo flows much more smoothly. There is nothing more irritating for everyone than the panelist who thinks they are the most qualified to speak to ANY open question and who rambles on and on or breaks in when another panelist offers another viewpoint.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Love the fact that you don't just limit it to the panelists, Edward. Like anything, it takes everyone to be fully active if it's to work, and the audience (and especially the moderator) can be guilty as sin at this.

Have you ever checked out Presentation Zen?

http://www.presentationzen.com/

Essential reading for any panelist or presenter. Now, if only there was something like that for moderators and attendees. Oh, wait a minute, there is - I'm commenting on it.

Cheers!
.-= Danny Brown´s last blog ..The Business iPod Mix =-.

Gary Spangler
Gary Spangler

I agree that panels can be boring. When I participate on or lead a panel, I try to achieve three objectives: (1)provide something useful that the audience can take home that can be implemented on their own, (2) incite some controversy to spur conversation and (3) study the subject ahead of time in order to provide a broader context for my personal opinions.

Hjortur Smarason
Hjortur Smarason

Good points. One of the best panels I've seen was the news panel at the 140conf in New York. (see http://www.observer.com/2009/media/cnns-rick-sanchez-todays-ann-curry-stand-their-twitter-iran-coverage)

Selecting people that you know have different opinions on the panels creates dynamics that are necessary to make the panel interesting. I think one of the problems with panels is that everyone on the panel agrees on the topic discussed. So nothing new is added or discussed, - the topic doesn't develop. It's just the same stuff echoed.
.-= Hjortur Smarason´s last blog ..Do we retweet, reface or echo on Facebook? =-.

Sarah Mae
Sarah Mae

This is excellent...I'm bookmarking it for future reference for when I become a famous panel speaker. ;)

Roy Murphy
Roy Murphy

My favourite way to ensure attention, and a good turn out in part 2 (at least for the creative grads in a I lecture for) is to tell them just before the break I'm going to share with them how to get from graduation to a six figure salary in around 3 years, whilst still being true to your creative self and without turning into some kind of plum.

It sure packs em in. Just before wrapping up I ask is there any more questions the ensuing forest of hands is something to behold.
.-= Roy Murphy´s last blog ..Our new book has arrived =-.

Mariano
Mariano

So...yeah. I can't tell you how many times I've felt like the guy in the audience who just plain fell asleep. Could be that I just didn't attend a panel that was "right" for me, but very often I don't think that people invited to panels are effective at honing their presentation or public speaking skills.

Of course, it's easy to criticize -- I can think of a time or two when someone would ask me a question and I would ramble on without organizing my thoughts into a pattern that was easily communicable. But I find the people that most effectively reach their audience are those that are engaging and organized with their thoughts, regardless of whether it's an answer to the question or the presentation itself, and that takes practice.
.-= Mariano´s last blog ..9 Unique Ways to Use Twitter =-.

Hanan Gelbendorf
Hanan Gelbendorf

They say that we get smarter when we sleep :) @gelbendorf
.-= Hanan Gelbendorf´s last blog ..Found in Translation =-.

Jonathan Fields
Jonathan Fields

Pattern interrupts. Even interested audience members can't maintain attention for more than 10 or 15 minutes these days. I've found starting with and then deliberately interjecting pattern interrupts that surprise, then redirect attention to be a great tool to keep a presentation alive. Also, really good storytelling (not nonsensical, rambling, pointless stories) can keep an audience on the edge of their seats for a lot longer. Short, directly responsive replies to questions. And, like you've recently mentioned...whenever possible, kill the deck.
.-= Jonathan Fields´s last blog ..Hello world! =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Doug:
Good point. Though even those don't always do the job. Still seems to me that panelist has real obligation to do some work and prepare, not just show up and assume that because there's a moderator and other panelists that he or she will be fed some underhand lobs inviting him to either pontificate or sell. Moderator and or sponsor should vet the panelist and even provide some guidelines.

Doug Winfield
Doug Winfield

The reality is that most folks on stage have no ability (or desire) to read their audience. I think every session should incorporate a feedback loop. Viewing twitter hashtags via Visibletweets.com or getting audience response through Poll Everywhere gives a presenter a sense if he's killed or bored an audience.

edward boches
edward boches

Stephen:
Agree, no PP during panels. Unless it's to show an example or an image that can't be described. A panel should be about the people on it, their stories, knowledge, and a personal connection among them and the audience.

edward boches
edward boches

Dixie:
A truly good point. Witnessed that problem as well. Three answers for every question. It may also be something that the moderator helps with. Asking the audience who the question is for, and steering the question to the right panelist. Thanks for that additional idea. It's a good one.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

Oh, for sure Edward. It's like the blog post you wrote recently about all commenters agreeing with the blogger's point of view - where's the learning in that? Now, get a bunch of different views, and readers questioning a blogger's stance, and that's when the real meat comes into play. Much like a panel, as you say.
.-= Danny Brown´s last blog ..The Business iPod Mix =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Danny:
Wow, thanks for that link. Some interesting stuff. Simplicity, balance, nothing in excess.

Anyway, as for the moderator and attendee, it does seem the experience is richer if everyone gets better. And think about what makes social media interactions great. Multiple perspectives, conversations that develop, and ideas that come at you from different, unexpected angles that end up expanding your own POV. That's what I want from a panel.

edward boches
edward boches

Darn. You just wrote my post in three sentences. Crisp, clear advice could not be put any better. Now if everyone would follow your ideas (and maybe mine) we'll all be on the edge of our seats.

edward boches
edward boches

Hjortur
Good point. A little tension and disagreement can add to dynamics, energy and passion. Will definitely keep audience awake. Still, different or similar, panelists need to prepare, and moderator needs to control, or at least steer.

edward boches
edward boches

Mariano:
Agree. Go watch some of the SXSW panels on video if you can find them. Some are OK, but others are painful. The panelists ramble on and on and on, just loving to hear themselves talk and showing little or no preparation. At least on tape you can fast forward.

edward boches
edward boches

Jonathan:
Yes on the storytelling. Especially if the stories are original, fresh, or come from outside the immediate subject but offer points that can be applied. Also, great story telling instantly gets rid of the need for Powerpoint and bullet points. Not to mention it gets remembered.

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  1. [...] to avoid being the dull one, take a look at this article from the blog, Creativity Unbound, “How to Prevent the Pitiful Panel” This article’s not just for speakers either, it gives suggestions to moderators, [...]