Panel Discussions. Ugh. Or Not.

On occasion I find myself in attendance at a conference or other event that has, as a part of its programming, a panel discussion. The topics can be phenomenal; “How to Succeed Where Other Fail,” “Your Startup Can Save Civilization,” “Best Practices for the Care and Feeding of Tigers,” or even “Why Do Birds Sing From Above?” Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to learn to feed tigers or learn more about birds? Not to mention the accomplished luminaries that will sit on the panel. Gotta love em, right? Well, maybe not so much – as often as not, sitting through one of these panel discussions is akin to finding myself in a burning theater searching for the exit signs. Get me out of here!

Among my pet peeves with these events is that the panelists often display a lack of preparation, a dearth of knowledge, an absence of insight, and an inability to articulate a position. Frightening. Boring. Sometimes it is the fault of the moderator; a moderator can make or break a panel and it is their job to ensure that the panelists are well prepared, that the discussion stays on topic, and that all angles are covered and all opinions are aired. Most of all it is up to the moderator to make sure that the discussion is lively and entertaining. Unfortunately, in my experience, 8 out of 10 panel discussions never reach their potential, and fail in the simplest goal: to educate and entertain the audience.

I have put together a list of 5 mistakes that moderators and panelists often make; mistakes inevitably lead to an underwhelming experience for the audience as well as the participants (not to mention the sponsor).

Mistake #1: Show up unprepared. It can be blindingly obvious when a panel member does not know their subject or did not do their homework before the event. The mistake they make is to assume that because it is a simple discourse, all they have to do is show up and talk a lot. Please don’t make this mistake – do some reading, take some notes, warm up by discussing the topic with others prior to the panel. Most importantly, make sure that the panelists and the moderator all find the time to meet beforehand to walk through the panel format, the topic, and the questions likely to be asked. This will also give everyone a chance to get to know one another a bit and. hopefully, find some areas of disagreement which can be debated during the event. After all, the best panel discussions are those which include a little bit of fireworks.

Mistake #2: Get bogged down with long introductions. 1 minute per panelist, tops. How many times have I attended an event where fully 1/2 of the scheduled time is taken up with long-winded introductions? Geez, gimme a break. I am here because you have some expertise or insight about the topic at hand and that is what I came for. Please don’t force me to listen to the details of your C.V. or your impressive accomplishments when what I want is to learn something from you.

Mistake #3: Fail to entertain. There is a reason that the audience has gathered in front of you: they want to learn and they want to be entertained. Be smart, be funny, be witty, or be obstreperous, but be something that will hold my attention and engage me in the discussion. All too often, these panels are made up of the most boring, most droning personalities that the world has to offer. Remember that as long as you are onstage, you are the evening’s entertainment and you should act like it.

Mistake #4: Look bored or distracted. The average discussion panel has a moderator and 3 or 4 panelists. Each of them should be given time to speak and express their opinion, share their knowledge, and demonstrate their acumen. And while your fellow panelists are taking their turn, it is essential that the rest of the panel is paying attention to what the speaker is saying. If the other panelists are nodding off, playing with their phones, or gazing off into the distance, it gives the audience permission to do the same. I mean, if the experts on stage find one another uninteresting, then why would the audience not?

Mistake #5: Agree with the other panelists. Even if you are in complete agreement with what one of your fellow panelists has said, the most uninteresting thing you can say is, “I agree with what [INSERT PANELIST NAME HERE] said.” We don’t need to hear that, rather we want to hear you say something that supports the previous speaker, but that adds value to what they said. If you agree, then provide some additional detail, or tell a story that illustrates the point, or provide some interesting data that supports the statement. Remember that the panel should be greater than the sum of it’s parts ad simply agreeing with someone doesn’t add, it detracts. Besides, a disagreement is always more interesting and entertaining for the audience. Always think of your panel as theater, and keep in mind that in drama, conflict equals interest!

Photo: slworking2