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.”)
Yascha Mounk: The rapid fall of the left
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.