When it comes to conference panels, everything in moderation

Getting Real

When it comes to conference panels, everything in moderation

ShutterstockVereshchagin Dmitry

It’s a new year, and with it a new cycle of sustainability conferences. In that spirit, I ask you these questions:

  • Have you ever attended a session that started with each panelist giving a 15-minute presentation? And by the time the Q&A came around, you forgot what the first one was about (if you were still awake)?
  • Have you ever served as a panelist in a session that the moderator opened by saying it was meant to be interactive, then let the other panelists speechify until there was virtually no time left for questions?
  • Have you ever moderated a panel with great guests who had traveled long distances, then had it start 20 minutes late due to a keynote overrun and still been told you had to end on time? 

They’ve all happened to me many times. Having just come off a couple of conferences through which I got to play attendee, moderator and panelist, I was contemplating what made the difference between those that worked well and those that were less than they could have been. And I have some pretty strong opinions about that.

Let me start by admitting that these are totally subjective, and one person’s great session can be another’s waste of time. (If you don’t believe me, just read the evaluations.) Context and purpose matter, too, of course. But as I have the privilege to write about how I’m experiencing the world, you get to read how I think panels should be conducted.

What makes a great session for me?

  • As an attendee, I’m looking for one that opens my eyes to an idea or perspective I hadn’t considered before. I want to learn something, but by being challenged to think, not (just) by being lectured to. I want to hear both sides of an issue, or at least acknowledgment of nuance and downsides, and I want to hear about lessons learned from failure, not just cherry-picked examples of success. 
  • As a moderator, I want to see that my panelists get an opportunity to communicate their messages and viewpoint. After all, they’re giving of their time and travel budget. But even more important, I’m looking for the attendees to be engaged, and to feel that they are getting honest responses to the questions that they brought with them. 
  • As a panelist, I want to get my own message out, of course, but I also want to be a provider of those honest responses. And I want the session to be interactive, because I learn from the questions asked. I enjoy the challenge of thinking on my feet, and I’m frankly fresher and more energized when not spouting canned stories. 

What these all have in common is engagement and interplay among the panelists, the moderator and the audience.

Tear down that wall

Please, do not start by putting up physical barriers. Those long tables with standing mikes — save them for testifying before Congress. Over my career, I learned to rearrange my office so my desk wasn’t a physical blockade between me and my visitor, and I can say with conviction that it made a big and positive difference in the tenor of the conversations.

The same applies to panel discussions. Stools or tall bar chairs are particularly nice, as they allow panelists the easy opportunity to move and keep energy flowing. 

The "presentation first" model seldom works for me. I’m not 100 percent against use of slides — they can be necessary to show images and graphs. But please skip the dense word slides. We know that people cannot read and listen at the same time, and I do not need to spend my own travel budget to be read to. Unless the session is carefully curated, the presentations can either overlap quite a bit, or underlap. (Okay, I made up that word, but you know what I mean: an underlap happens when presentations are disjointed and only loosely related.)

Worst of all, after 45 or 60 minutes (assuming the presenters all kept to their time allotments, which they never do), there is seldom enough time for good discussion among the panelists, let alone with the audience.

All in good time

Of course, there are cases where presentations are absolutely necessary and appropriate. In academic settings, for example. In that situation, it makes sense to allow for a Q&A after each presentation. An interactive panel discussion among the presenters, if it makes sense, can follow when they’re all done. And do let the presenters speak to one another.

Moderators: please, please manage the time. Ask your panelists in advance to keep their responses short. I’ve seen the use of two-minute clocks, where speakers actually get shut down mid-sentence, but that’s not what I’m advocating. A semi-polite interruption is OK, though, with "I’d like to bring Fred in here now," or "Let’s hold off on this part and come back to it in a bit," or "Before you continue, do any of the other panelists want to comment?"

Prep calls are hugely useful, but I don’t believe in using them to rehearse the panel. You don’t want to "leave it all on the phone" and it’s not fair to the audience to talk about a great conversation you had when they weren’t there. Agree on the basic format and to hear from others why they’re participating, what they think is most important to cover and what professional and/or personal context they’re bringing to the discussion.

When I’m moderator, I usually ask if the panelist want particular topics raised and look for suggestions of what to ask the attendees (more about that in a minute) but I rarely request a list of questions to ask them. I do prepare a list of questions in advance, focusing on the opening and closing questions and any key queries that will get at the heart of the topic. But I adjust them as I go based on what I’m hearing.

My goal is for a conversation, not an interrogation. That means neither going down the line, asking each panelist a question that is unrelated to the others, nor asking each panelist to answer every single question.

As for the audience Q&A, that’s the best part. Unrehearsed, honest, open — it’s where the surprises and insights show up. I typically follow an intro of the session and panelists with a question to the attendees to find out just who they are. This engages them quickly and helps the shape the discussion to their needs. Then we may do a hand raise or electronic poll.

Lately, at the suggestion of the excellent Neil Hawkins, we’ve done a "shout-out" question, inviting them to call out a word or two in response to a fill-in-the-blank question. This is great as it exercises their voices and gets them ready to be part of the event. In one session, we wrote their callouts on a flipchart and the panelists made reference to them throughout the discussion.

Avoiding 'soliloquestions'

It’s helpful if the audience questioners are discouraged from long discourse — "soliloquestions," as they're sometimes called. I'll usually ask questioners to state their name and affiliation, then get to the question in a sentence or two, and will nudge them toward the question mark if need be. And not every panelist needs to jump in on every question. As a panelist, I am afraid I talk too long, but I try like heck to remind myself to watch my airtime and not run down the clock just repeating what someone else said.

It goes without saying that the moderator’s job is to moderate. Paraphrasing a question can be useful, to make sure it was heard and to validate your understanding. But let the panelists answer even if you have to bite your tongue. (Oh, is that difficult to do.) Sometimes the panelists look like a deer in the headlights at a question; in that case, it probably makes sense to jump into the breach. 

If all goes well, the session will run out of time and lots of hands will still be raised. An old coach of mine suggested I keep a journal of techniques I saw working, then try them on for myself. One that works for me in this situation is to take three questions, then ask each panelist to pick one. Trust them — they’re usually really good about making sure each question gets at least one answer (or hold them to exactly one, if time is really tight).

One last piece of advice: Listen. Listening to one another — panelists, moderator, audience — surfaces new ideas and insights. Whatever role you’re in, you should find good panel session interesting, thought-provoking, engaging and — even with serious subject matters — thoroughly enjoyable.