7 Commandments for Running Great Conference Panels

How many times have you gone to a conference and sat through a poorly-run or boring panel?

As a consultant in wealth management, I attend a lot of conferences and try to take in as many of the panels as I can. When done right, these sessions brim with new ideas, controversial opinions, and lively debate. When run poorly, they become a snooze-fest, turning the audience into a sea of heads all staring down at their phones.

The most valuable asset we have is time. I feel that conference panels should maximize this opportunity for learning and keep the audience engaged.

In my experience, too many times this is not the case.

After sitting through a series of particularly disappointing sessions, I jotted down my thoughts on what went wrong. I started a list of the ingredients of what makes up a great panel.

While I usually attend wealth management and mobile technology conferences, these tips are relevant for any industry.

1. Choose panelists with different points of viewconference panels

The point of bringing together a group of experts is to generate a lively debate. A lively back and forth between panelists will better hold the audience’s attention and provide a range of viewpoints.

A conference panel becomes less interesting when two or more of the panelists share the same opinion on the topic. It turns into a group monologue when all of the panelists agree.

Remember that the audience showed up for a break from lecture and conventional views. If the topic is interesting enough to warrant a panel, you should maximize the debate format by selecting panelists who have differing views. Counter-points and controversy keep the conversation exciting.

2. Choose panelists who are experts

This is an actual opening statement I heard from a panel member, “I’m not an expert on this subject, but I’ve heard that…”. And this panelist was on the agenda, not a last minute replacement!

I have also heard people say things that caused the audience to cringe or scratch their heads in wonder at how this person got on the dais when they don’t seem to have a clue.

Most conference attendees work in the industry and have their own level of experience and expertise. Every panelist doesn’t have to be one of the worlds’ leading authorities on the subject. They just need to know more than the audience does!

If possible, select panelists who have experience talking in front of a live audience. Not every industry expert can be a brilliant public speaker, yet effective panelists are able to entertain, connect, and inform.

3. Don’t skimp on preparation

This may sound obvious, yet I have seen too many panels that suffer from an obvious lack of preparation.

It is usually the moderator’s job to speak with the panel members in advance and work out how the session will run. He should email everyone with a list of potential questions and ask for input. Sometimes multiple calls are necessary to build up a level of comfort among the members.

Don’t limit your due diligence to having breakfast with the panelists an hour before the session starts. If you are not able to schedule a conference call with all panelists, speak with them one on one to get their input– then share a summary with everyone.

An hour or two spent in preparation will make a world of difference in the benefit a panel can deliver to its audience.

4. Choose a moderator who adds valueconference panels

A moderator should do more than just introduce the speakers at the beginning of the session and thank them at the end. She should engage in conversation with the panel, and should be expected to contribute to the discussion. The moderator should be as knowledgeable about the subject as her companions on the stage.

5. Choose a moderator who can moderate

One of the definitions of the verb ‘moderate’ is to “preside over a deliberative body or a debate”. The moderator is in a position of authority during the session. She must know when to exercise this authority to maintain the discussion flow.

Don’t allow one person to dominate the airspace. Why invite several experts if you are not going to let them all speak? Everyone on the panel has taken the time to help you. They should all get a chance to voice their opinions.

Do stick to the stated subject of the panel. By allowing presenters to stray from the main topic, you are sending a message that the agenda doesn’t matter. This makes it difficult for the audience to select which sessions to attend, since they cannot be sure what topics will be covered.

Lastly, keep track of time. A subject that is interesting, new, or controversial can be discussed for days. Don’t let that happen.

6. Skip the extended introductionsconference panels

Long introductions kill session flow and deflate audience interest. With three or four panelists, you can burn through 15-20 minutes of the session just going over their credentials, industry awards, and impressive growth rates of their companies. Get into the meat of the topic itself! If someone in the audience is curious about a panelist’s background, they can Google them any time. In fact, I Google most panelists during the session itself.

7. Avoid sales pitches from the dais

Sponsorships are an unavoidable part of conferences. Sponsors foot the bill for everything and in return, their names are plastered everywhere and their literature is piled up everyplace.

Everyone realizes that a panelist who works for a sponsor is up there because it was part of the sponsorship package. But that doesn’t mean that the panel should become a mini-sales session. That’s what all the sponsor booths are kept in a separate area of the conference.

The moderator should act as an advocate for the audience by avoiding extended panelist self-promotion. This should be communicated during the prep calls and enforced during the panel itself.

Sales pitches from the dais kill audience engagement and wipe out trust in the veracity of what the panelists are saying.

Conference Panels Should be Great

A great panel creates content that is greater than if each person were to speak on their own. That does not happen by accident on the day of the event. A truly memorable panel discussion is a result of careful planning, preparation, and chemistry between participants.

Most of these tips are aimed at the moderators. Their role is challenging because it requires a unique skill-set. They must be deeply knowledgeable about the subject, have a strong presence, be able to improvise, and have a knack for reading the pulse of the audience.

Even the best moderators cannot do it alone – so selecting the right panelists is critical. Your target is the right mix of knowledge, ability and willingness to express an opinion, and differing viewpoints.

After all, the best panels are dynamic conversations among smart and interesting people on a topic that is relevant, exciting, and controversial. These 7 commandments are a convenient checklist to make your next panel a high point of the conference.

2 comments on “7 Commandments for Running Great Conference Panels

  1. Craig,
    Good stuff. Although as a panelist who does a lot of these – some that turn out good, and some alas not so much – it’s worth noting that there’s also such thing as over-preparing, and in particular “over-scripting” a panel.

    Even with experts and a good moderator, I find some of the worst panels I’ve been on were hosted by events so nervous about the panel, they didn’t trust their experts to be experts and have conversations. They tried to script everything, to the point that the flow wasn’t natural, the conversation felt forced, and session turned out poorly. :/
    – Michael

    1. Michael,
      I agree that scripting a panel or otherwise spending too much time deciding what everyone is going to say (or not going to say) is counter-productive. There’s a wide berth between skimping on prep and prepping so much the panel sounds canned. I’d just like to see the moderator schedule a 30 minute call before the conference. That would be enough to prep for most topics.
      Thanks!
      Craig

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