My guide to speaking at conferences has a panel-shaped vacuum, so let’s fill it.
The title of this article was a trap; the panel format is surprisingly resistant to total train wrecks. What I’ve noticed is that newcomers — especially newly minted conference organizers — seem to panic much more about panels than about the formats that actually get messy (AMA, I’m lookin’ at you).
There’s an interesting negative correlation between the audience size and the amount of panel preparation. At one extreme end of my experiences is chatting for the first time as we were in makeup just minutes before stepping in front of 18,000 people. At the other, here’s a sound I hear more at small events: “Are you available for group prep phone calls?”
The reason that large events shoot from the hip and go low on prep is that they typically have experienced organizers and moderators who know (from experience!) that it’s okay to play it fast and loose. To understand why, let’s look at how panels actually go wrong…
#1 Horrible moderator
The secret to preventing most of the disasters below? A skilled moderator. When panels go wrong, it’s usually because the moderator doesn’t know how to moderate. If you have a good one, breathe easy and leave it to them.
#2 Limelight hogs
Even if the content is great, no one has come to a panel to hear one person blather on without letting others get in a word edgewise. It’s hard to make out the content with all that obnoxiousness in the way. The cure? The moderator takes control of the flow to give everyone a share of the limelight.
The perfect storm is a combo of #1 and #2: Moderators who think they are the main panelist, dominating the entire panel with their opinion instead of moderating it.
#3 Boring boring boring
The audience expects to hear high-quality discussion. Discussion. Not monologues. Not scripted mini-talks. It’s up to the moderator to figure out how to prompt the panelists with questions that fall into the intersection of their interests so that they’re not bored and they don’t bore the audience.
A common way to die of boredom is to have every panelist take turns answering the same question. Nononono! The question is a seed that’s supposed to blossom into a conversation. Don’t subject the poor thing to a firing squad of responses.
#4 Control freaks
When the moderator forces the conversation to stick to a list of questions instead of letting panelists have fun with it, they’re letting everyone down. Sticky panelists are also unpleasant — if everyone wants to move on, don’t make them have to pry you off a topic. Go with the flow.
#5 Awkward turtles
Sometimes the atmosphere is tense and there’s no rapport between panelists. This is might be the result of a bad mix (when you put a fur coat designer on the same panel as an animal rights activist, are you expecting a fun atmosphere?) but the most common cause is that the participants are meeting one another for the first time… on stage. Even a short face-to-face hello beforehand can save the day.
#6 Time-wasting self-introductions
Inexperienced panelists think that the first thing out of their mouths should be an autobiography. After one of you does it, the others are forced to follow suit. When you’re all done, there’s only 5 minutes left. Unless you’re allotted more time than you know what to do with, keep self-intros to 2 short sentences or less.
#7 The shocker
Someone says something that makes everyone cringe. The trick is to move the conversation along before dwelling on it turns a bad moment into a bad panel. Usually “the shocker” is the result of a panelist being asked something perpendicular to their comfort zone. A classic way it happens is when #4 collides with #2: a moderator hell-bent on sticking to the script hits an unsuspecting victim with a question originally intended for the limelight hog.
Another kind of shocker happens when someone wanders so far off topic that the audience is shocked we managed to go there. This can happen when a panelist misunderstands the question and sets off in a crazy direction without clarifying it first.
#8 Too many panelists
Too few panelists is usually not a big problem, but too many is hard to handle. Every moderator has a breaking point, and adding panelists is the way to find it. Keep piling people on and you’ll eventually overwhelm the moderator’s ability to keep the content interesting and give everyone a fair share of the speaking time.
#9 The surprise panelist
Among disasters that aren’t a result of the format (building loses power, etc.) a common one is someone getting sick. Luckily, the panel format is resilient. Simply carry on with fewer people, even if you’re down to a single panelist. Don’t invite trouble by adding a surprise panelist. If the moderator is down, that’s another matter.
#10 Mismatched panelists
Two professors of astrophysics and an olympic gold medalist? Yeah, it’s hard, but a stellar moderator could make it work. The inclusion of the olympian means that the intersection of interests has shifted, so don’t try to force it to be an astrophysics panel. Instead of talking neutrinos, how about discussing what it’s like to work very hard to reach a difficult goal? All three could find a common voice on that and learn from one another.
#11 Audience Q&A
This one is not panel-specific so it doesn’t make the top 10 list (otherwise I’d put it at #3). It’s a general word of warning. Inviting audience participation (without using technology that lets the moderator cherry-pick questions in private) magnifies the risk that something goes wrong. It only takes one troll to turn your conference into a story you’d rather not be part of. If you have no way to screen questions in advance, there’s only so much your moderator can do. Unless you trust your audience’s good intentions or every speaker is 100% unflappable, avoid open Q&A.
If you insist on panicking, don’t panic about prep. Panic about moderation.