Death By Panel Discussions

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We survived “Death by PowerPoint”. We learned how to endure torture through hundreds of presentations that featured slide after slide of a headline with black bullets organized underneath in a row. Each bullet was followed by black words on a white background in sentence fragments. The format ruled the day so effectively that we all had stacks of presentations on our desks that made no sense. Remember, we are talking about sentence fragments, not complete thoughts. We were lulled into watching presentation after presentation by the hum of the hot projector propped up by books on conference table projecting onto a white wall. Sometimes the link between the computer and the projector worked.

One presentation followed another. The only thing different was the title page. Otherwise it was bullet point after bullet point with sentence fragments in between. Then something happened. Technology and creativity joined forces and PowerPoint presentations became better, even interesting. Some presentations now are like Hollywood productions including sound, animation, and videos. Today, when I hear PowerPoint, I no longer consider bringing other things to the presentation so that I can multi-task.

Fast forward — Death by Panel Discussion is now the rule. Go to any industry meeting, trade show, conference or gathering and the agenda will be loaded with panels. I have been to a tavern where a panel discussion was taking place. What used to be an interesting perspective by a speaker is now a dull session with panelists. You have all been to this session: The moderator starts off by saying Welcome! followed by, “We are lucky to have a distinguished set of panelists, please introduce yourself to the audience.” Forty minutes later, the panelists are still introducing themselves but the allocated time is only forty-five minutes. So we go on the next panel and start again. After sitting through three or four panels we look for alternative ways to spend time doing anything else. Anything.

It is understandable why panels are dominant. For the event organizer, panels are a way to cram lots of speakers into a short program. For the panelist, participation really doesn’t require any preparation — just show up. But what about the audience? The audience is suffering at the expense of the panels and not getting the rich content any program should render.

Now that I am a survivor of the Death by Panel Discussion syndrome, as a moderator, panelist and audience member, I have some advice to cure this malady.

  • Avoid too many panels. Back-to-back panels will make attendees run to the bar. I would rather hear one good speaker than ill-prepared panelists. Two for the day is a good number.
  • Too many panels have too many people. Three people and a moderator are the limit. Maybe four if it is an outstanding panel.
  • PowerPoint only disrupts panel discussions. A panel sit with a PowerPoint is a dangerous person.
  • The panel should be composed of people with equal rank. I don’t want to be on a panel with Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch and no one wants to hear me if I am.
  • Disagreement should rule panels. If everyone says the same thing, that is a speech, not a panel. Enemies on panels are even better.
  • The moderator role is important. He or she needs to listen to what is being said and keep things going. The moderator should surprise the panelists with questions. If the discussion gets hot, keep it going.
  • Panelists should speak to the audience not each other. They are the audience after all.
  • All panelists should have plenty of chances to talk. The moderator should not go up and down the row asking, “What do you think?” Call on the shy person too.

It can be done. We survived death before even though PowerPoint came close. To make our work lives even better, we need some cures from Death by Panel Discussions.

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