Industry conference season now seems to stretch roughly from Martin Luther King's Birthday to Winter Solstice, and there seems to be a new entrant (or four) vying for our time and attention every month. And the attendees who move from summit to summit like migrant farm workers trooping from field to field all share one central opinion: Boy, there are an awful lot of crappy panel discussions!
Indeed there are. Some conference organizers have gone so far as to impose an outright ban on panels. But blaming the panel is like blaming the chicken and carrots and rice for being a bad meal. Somebody was in charge (or, too often, not in charge) of its preparation. Having moderated scores of them over the years, I'll take a stand: there are no bad panels, only bad moderators. As a service to the industry, I'm offering free advice to both conference producers and would be moderators. Please accept it. Then go forward and suck no more.
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Rule #1: Being on Stage is a Privilege. If you're running a conference, you are doing the moderator a favor by allowing him or her to run the panel. Establish clear expectations and hold the moderator responsible along the way. (Side note: If you're choosing moderators or panelists based on who's sponsoring your conference, you've painted yourself into a corner.) Talk to your moderators about the level of preparation and scripting you expect.
Rule #2: The Moderator Works for the Audience. You're not up there to make the panelists feel good. (See Rule #1: it's a privilege for them to be on stage too.) Be an advocate for audience rights: the right not to be bored, not to have their time wasted. If you think a panelist is opaque, confusing or off topic, fix it. As the follow up question; challenge; redirect.
Rule #3: The Opening Always Sucks. Skip it. Those brief two-minute self introductions you let the panelists do are the beginning of a bad panel. Either introduce them and their companies yourself in 20 seconds or less (and of course NEVER read anybody's bio!) or just put their names and companies up on a slide. The audience you work for (Rule #2) only cares if the panelists are insightful, useful or entertaining. Get on with it.
Rule #4: Do the Work. Individual pre-conference conversations - or at very least an email exchange - with the panelists should be mandatory. These exchanges are followed by an email to the group outlining the themes and questions you'll be including. The best panels are the continuation of a conversation, not the initiation of one.
Rule #5: Have a Point of View. Who says the moderator has to be moderate? Be a flash point instead. Bring your own views to the panel. Lay them out and ask the panelists for reactions. You're not a potted plant.
Rule #6: Don't be fair. Be good. Too many moderators go "down the line" and give every panelist a say in every question. Nobody wants to hear hair-splitting nuance and incremental improvements on points. Direct questions to specific panelists then move on.
Rule #7: Look, Listen, Interrupt. Good moderators don't look at their panelists all the time; they're constantly looking out into the audience. This forces their panelists to do the same and keeps eye contact between the panel and the crowd. Also truly listen to the answers - then probe, challenge and expand on them. When a comment is sharp, reinforce it. When it's lame or meandering, interrupt and redirect. (See rules 2 & 6)
With all the scary smart people in our business, it's a tragedy that our primary vehicle for learning from them is so terribly broken. Next time you're seeking refuge on your iPhone or Droid during some panel that's going nowhere, use the time to forward this post....to the moderator.
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