First of all, I love what you do. Really. You’re terrific, and your efforts make our lives better. Don’t ever change. Well, actually, there is something that needs to change.
There’s a problem that persists across almost every conference I’ve ever been to. The good ones. The bad ones. The Amazing ones and the Meh ones. And we need to address it once and for all so that it can be prevented from happening in the future.
There are panels and there are presentations. These two things are not the same. In fact, they are quite different, but they often get mixed up. They are both great in their own respects, but they are not the same thing, and people go to them expecting different things.
We (the audience) go to see a panel to see a discussion between a group of interesting people.
We (the audience) go to see a presentation to see an interesting person present something awesome.
We (the audience) do not go to a panel to see an interesting person present something awesome while 3, 4 or 5 other interesting people sit quietly on stage doing nothing for huge amounts of time. That is a waste of those interesting people’s time and uncomfortable as all get out for the audience.
Yet this happens all the time. A panel is scheduled with a moderater and great people and then the moderator is basically turned into a human remote control switching from one long program to the next as one by one each panel member gives a long solo presentation. Without fail, once all these presentations are done, and the super fascinating, exciting and engaging conversation between these interesting people finally starts – the time is up. And without fail someone apologizes for not having more time for discussion. You know why? Because a bunch of presentations just got advertised as a panel.
Can we all take a moment and recognize this is terrible, horrible and awful and then never ever do it again? IT’s OK, we all make mistakes. The trick is identifying those mistakes and correcting them for next time. So we’re clear on this then? Excellent. I feel better already, I know you do too.
Now, I know sometimes people need to present something to the audience so there is some context for why they are on this panel and why their comments are so tweetable.
So here’s how you do that: Lightning talks. Before the panel. 2 minutes each.. maybe 5 minutes tops for each person to get up on their own and very, very quickly run through whatever it is that gives them context for this panel. If someone needs more than 5 minutes they are the wrong person for your panel because either the audience is too unfamiliar with their topic, or it’s is too big of an idea for a panel and should be it’s own lengthy presentation.
Then, once the lightning talks are over everyone goes up on stage and the discussion begins. This should be a conversation between everyone. It’s a panel discussion. The discussion is key. That’s what the audience is there for. To see these awesome, interesting people, talking to each other.
Moderators, this part is for you: the reason you are called “moderators” is because you should “moderate” this conversation. Ask questions. Lead the discussion. You are in charge. Make sure everyone is included. If someone is talking on and on shut them up and pull someone else into the spotlight. Keep it moving. There’s nothing worse than a moderator who is afraid of the panelists and lets one or two of them talk uninterrupted for the entire session time while the others sit there unable to get a word in edgewise. Well, nothing except a bunch of back to back presentations being billed as a panel.
Thanks everyone, I can’t wait for the next conference!