My beef with panels
I've been to a lot of events over the past few years, and I've drawn a number of conclusions about various sorts of presentations. One of the most universal of these is that panels suck*. If you've been lucky enough to avoid panels in the past, let me enlighten you: a panel consists of a group of people (generally 3-5) who sit up front and answer questions posed by a moderator. The panelists can be united by a number of traits – people who've worked in the same domain, dealt with similar situations, competed in the same competition**, etc. The idea behind the panel is that it allows the audience to hear multiple perspectives on that commonality; if your panelists all work in academia, for instance, they'll be answering questions about the unique characteristics of that environment ("Are university politics different from private sector politics?") Embedded in that description is a set of problems that combine to make panels incredibly difficult to do well.
- Multiple presenters are difficult to handle at the best of times – the flow of a presentation is very easy to disrupt if personal styles differ, and panels make that inevitable. The only way I've seen to manage multiple presenters is to have them practice together repeatedly, and that can't happen with panels, which tend to be more conversational. People step on each others' sentences, or withdraw entirely and look disinterested in their fellow panelists.
- There's no right way to address questions. The moderator could ask each panelist the same question (since the point is to get their different perspectives), but that becomes incredibly boring for the audience – and if you avoid that, then you're missing the point of those different perspectives.
- If the topic is broad, then you're going to get an incomplete view from each panelist. In that case, it would be better if they each gave a full presentation of their own. I've never experienced the opposite scenario, where the topic is very narrow and each panelist says his or her piece on it entirely, but at that point the topic might be too narrow to be of any real interest.
So, how do we fix panels? Or do we even bother? I think that, for the most part, we should strive to eliminate panels of the sort I've described from conferences. They're usually massively unproductive, and contribute mightily to the hallway-trackers (people who say conferences suck and they only go for the hallway conversations). There may be one exception, however: a panel might work if the panelists are all telling the same story. An instance of this would be the founders of a company telling how they got started and grew – or a project team describing their process. This sort of case-study panel would be much more natural, as we've all experienced group storytelling (even if it's just a couple describing their vacation), and so the panelists wouldn't interfere with each other as much. This could be a multi-subject interview (with a relatively active moderator), though that could run into some of the same problems that the normal panel exposes; it might be better just to eliminate the moderator entirely and let the panelists just tell their story. Whether that's a better approach or not, one thing's for sure: I'm definitely going to avoid your typical panels at events I attend in the future. What about you?
* I've been on a panel, and yes – it kind of sucked, too.
** I suppose you could have a panel where there's even less of a common thread among the panelists, but that's the stuff of my nightmares.