Over the past few years, I’ve participated in about a hundred panels. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve listened to—or, let’s be honest, endured—hundreds more. Most of them had one thing in common: They sucked.
I could write a whole book about the panels that have gone wrong in particularly strange or hilarious fashion: the one where the moderator fell asleep. The one where the opening statements lasted longer than the time allotted for the whole event. The one, high up on the 10th floor, when the acrobatic window washer stole the show.
These exotic horrors notwithstanding, I disagree with Leo Tolstoy: Every unhappy panel is unhappy in some of the same ways.
You know the scene. First come the long introductions. Then five people give opening statements of steadily increasing length. After that is a “conversation” in which the panelists talk past one another, sticking to the same old points they have made dozens of times before. This is followed by a few incoherent rants from the angriest members of the audience (question mark optional). Finally, a polite round of applause, which is anticipated with the same resigned longing as the saving bell on the last day of school.
It doesn’t have to be like that. At their rare best, panels can actually be fun and informative.
If you are ever in charge of organizing a panel, it is your professional responsibility—nay, your sacred moral duty—to avoid some of the tortures daily visited upon suspecting conference-goers. In that spirit, here are my six rules for (panel) life.
1. Don’t have more than four people onstage.
It’s really hard to have a conversation among lots of people—especially when time is short. Yes, I know that you’re under pressure from marketing to include a member of that team. And, yes, I get that the sponsors of the conference need to be featured at some point. And, absolutely, it would be a shame to sacrifice the one speaker who actually, you know, has something interesting to say. But if you put more than four people onstage, you’re giving up on the prospect of a lively conversation from the very start. Don’t.
2. Keep introductions to a minimum.
Most panels have a captive audience. But even if bored members of the audience can’t leave, they can—and often do—go into internal exile. As the head of the organization introduces the conference organizer, and the conference organizer introduces the moderator, and the moderator reads a detailed list of the panelists’ achievements, half of the audience shifts its attention to shopping, snoozing, or engaging in fantasies of murder.
So never take more than 20 seconds for any single introduction. After all, much of the audience will already know who’s onstage. And everyone else can consult the program, or the internet.
(Need more motivation to cut your introduction in half? Imagine your most famous panelist walking over to you, putting a hand on your shoulder, smiling sympathetically, and saying, “They came to hear me, you know.”)
3. Ax the opening statements.
One problem with opening statements is that they’re not just openings—they tend to take over the whole event. Asked to speak for five minutes, the first panelist will speak for seven, and the second panelist for 10. Quickly adopting to the rate of inflation, the third panelist will take up 15 minutes. Even if you avoided the temptation of putting more than four people onstage, half of your time has now been taken up by disconnected monologues.
An even deeper problem with opening statements is that they make it much harder to put the ideas and perspectives of the speakers into genuine conversation with one another. Having set out their own tent, most speakers will stick to their turf. Most likely they will never emerge to meet one another on common (or contested) ground.
4. Guide the conversation.
Moderators are the audience’s advocate. It is their duty to make sure that the panel is interesting and comprehensible—and that wayward panelists don’t get to ruin the whole thing.
If you are moderating and a panelist speaks in technical language that most members of the audience won’t understand, don’t nod along sagely; ask for an explanation in clear language. If a panelist drones on and on about a boring topic, don’t switch off; pass the baton to another speaker. And if the panelists are talking past one another, don’t cue up the next monologue; make sure they actually engage with one another’s ideas.
5. Cut off the cranks.
I have a confession: I love rambling statements from the cranks in the audience. You get to see how easily the moderator gets flustered. You get to see how speakers respond to crazy ideas. And you definitely get to see how good everyone is at concealing uncharitable thoughts. What’s not to like?
But if you do want to stop the cranks from taking over—and despite my strange predilections, you probably should—your job is actually quite simple: Set out clear ground rules before you open the floor to the audience. Emphasize that you are looking for concise questions, not long rants. Make clear that you will cut people off if they go on for longer than 20 seconds. Do.
6. Pick panelists who have something to say to one another.
A good panel is a public conversation among interesting people who have real disagreements about an important topic. If you follow the simple advice in this article, you’re well on your way toward organizing such a panel. Congratulations!
But nothing works without the basics: Choose a topic in which your audience will take a genuine interest. Pick panelists who have real disagreements with one another. That is, make sure your speakers bring different perspectives and backgrounds to the stage.
You may wonder whether this is putting too much emphasis on conflict and difference. Isn’t there a place for panels to advance a specific point of view?
It’s absolutely fine for the speakers to share a broad ideology or worldview; nobody expects a conservative at a gathering of progressive organizers (or vice versa). But if your speakers agree on everything important, the audience will be bored.
Thankfully, there is an easy solution if your goal is persuasion rather than debate: Ask one person to give a talk. Between us, most of those are better than panels anyway.