If I hadn’t been locked down in some very important meetings this week, I’d have been in Ottawa as a guest on a panel discussion hosted by the federal government. Subject matter was entrepreneurship and startups (very apropos for Play The Future), which is the same theme of the ResolveTO conference I’ll be part of in Toronto next week...another event rife with panels.
No great shock here, as panel discussions are a staple of just about every conference on earth; as common as the branded neck lanyard...but way less colorful, exciting and useful.
By now, I think you get the point that I’m no big fan of the genre. About 10 years ago, I wrote a blog post called “Give Me Keynotes or Give Me Death,” essentially about me swearing off ever again being a part of a dreaded panel. In it, I ranted
Most panel discussions are not.
They are falsely overly-polite bore-fests, where people speak one after the other for 5-10 minutes each, while the remaining panelists sit in stultifying silence waiting their turn.
To make matters worse, most close with the perfunctory Q&A session...where there are few "Q"s and even fewer "A"s.
Add to this mess a moderator who is either cluelessly unfamiliar with the panelists, or so filled with his own agenda that he (sadly, most are males) ignores those sitting next to him and delivers his own long-winded diatribe instead.
A recipe for irrelevance and disaster. And one I'm not willing to partake in anymore.
Time has mellowed me, I suppose. While I still find panels banal, I have acquiesced and participated in ‘em a few times over the past 10 years...but knowing that I would try to be an incendiary device on stage and toss a couple of controversy bombs into the proceedings.
Sometimes, this has worked well, last October’s Banff Forum, for example, when I suggested that the CBC hold a bake sale as a fundraiser, or last May’s C2MTL (see above), when I snuck in a subversively false panel just before a real one (where my panelists all spoke simultaneously). But by and large, even with my madness, most panels I’ve endured have maintained their tradition of lameness and sameness.
Again, time has mellowed me. A decade ago, I merely complained, but now, I actually have come up with a recipe on how to IMPROVE these panels, because Lord knows, they ain’t going away anytime soon. So, if you want your event to have a half-decent panel, or want to be part of one, include a couple of these elements into the mix:
The worst part of panels is that most of them have the converted preaching to the converted and bored. A good panel needs conflict. If everyone’s on the same page, nobody will turn it. No Jerry Springer-esque on-stage fisticuffs, but a contrary viewpoint--or many of them--are a necessity.
Do something different. Say something different. Wear something different. Bring out a beer. Upset the equilibrium somehow, someway and you will be thanked and remembered forever.
Audience Wall Breakdown
It boggles the mind how often I see panelists talk to and look at each other almost exclusively, treating the audience like a bunch of spectators at the world’s most insipid zoo. Bring the crowd into the conversation long before the perfunctory request for questions.
Stand up. Lie down on the stage. Toss something into the crowd. Throw your water glass in the air, spin and then catch it. Be kinetic. Why do so many panelists think they are part of the mannequin challenge on stage? Since when did air become cement?
It’s a visual world folks; back up your mouth with something three-dimensional and tangible. The audience will remember the object long after your words are forgotten.
As per the above, the result of a visual world is that what stands out is captured and shared. Don’t just think visually; think how to create an Instagram/Facebook Live moment.
It could be as trite as a slogan on your t-shirt, or as heady as a poem (don’t laugh; my panelmate at the Banff Forum, Canada’s Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke, killed with this one), but any successful panel plants an intellectual seed to be pondered long after stage time is over. However, these words of wisdom are rarely improvised; think one up and deliver it...loudly!