I'm kind of down on attending panel discussions at conferences, because so often they are mini-presentations delivered in a linear fashion, that never actually obtain liftoff on anything that sounds like discussion. This is sad, really, because a good one can be trememdously stimulating.
Rick Wolfe sent me a video clip of one being conducted by Guy Kawasaki, who is clearly good at many things, but this isn't one of them.
Mr. Kawasaki is trying to liven up a conference presentation by bringing some of the target user group (young adults) into the room ⇒ a really good idea.
He puts the teens in a flat line at the front of the room ⇒ not conducive to a discussion
He puts himself at a podium away from the rest of the group ⇒ thereby setting up an unequal situation, also not good.
The first time he hears something funny he milks the entertainment value, not the learning value. [Start watching at 5:13] Everyone laughed at the girl whose parents cancelled her text messaging service when she sent 4,000 text messages in one month. ⇒ The panelists are now either going to say something extreme, in order to get the desired laugh, or they are going to reveal as little as possible, in order to avoid saying the wrong thing and being laughed at. And at 6:33, it's clear that this young man is nervously seeking the right answer to the question.
There are a lot of short, closed-ended questions. Each panelist is asked the same question.
Things start to get going for a minute at 8:37, as one panelist tries to explain text messaging to the audience. It's lovely and insightful. But not allowed to continue. Net result ⇒ a serial interview and a lost opportunity.
Not long after that, the moderator starts polling people by getting them to raise their hands to questions like, "How many go to Blockbuster?" What a shame we couldn't just hear more talk from these very interesting panelists.
A better set-up might look like this:
- Put the moderator at the same table as the panelists
- Get rid of the "head table" feel, and seat the panelists so they can see each other
- Keep the mikes, get rid of the podium, and move the table into the room
If you're the one moderating the panel, try these tips:
- Get people comfortable talking by building an environment of trust. Gentle humour is good, laughing at panelists is not.
- Ask big, powerful questions to get things moving, then stop talking. Wrong way: "How many text messages do you send?" Right way: "What is text messaging all about?"
- Avoid setting up a norm of serial interviewing, by allowing a few awkward pauses, and forcing the panelists to take part of the responsibility for the conversation.
- Use a vote only to start a topic, or trigger discussion from different points of view, not as a poll. If you wanted statistics, you could have done a survey.
The whole idea is to get a conversation going that the rest of the audience can listen in on. Once it's going, you let it roll as long as it's on topic and productive, and no-one is taking over.