The Five Perils of a Panel

Panels during event general sessions seem like a good idea at first: you're utilizing different presenters, so there's a change in focus/attention every 5-6 minutes, you're engaging in a discussion format that seems like it would be more engaging, you have the opportunity to get different perspectives, and you may even have some audience interaction in the form of questions.

Indeed, panel discussions at places like ComicCon and similar are exceedingly popular and very interesting to their super-fans. The key there being super-fans.

How about when you have a sales audience and you have a panel of customers?
A panel of executives presenting to the rank and file?

This is an entirely different story. These panels often come off as flat, unengaging and boring. When you look at the best aspects of a great presentation, these elements seem to be missing in panels entirely. So why are these panels so painful and deadly-dull for the audience? Where do panels go wrong?

1. They're usually not needed and have unclear outcomes.
Typically people come up with the idea to do a panel because they think it will be more interesting than a series of presentations. That may be the case, but doing a panel for the sake of doing a panel doesn't produce the results one desires. Panels are not exempt from needing explicit, clear and focused outcomes. Without an outcome, the panel can wander, lose focus or suffer from a lack of focus to begin with.

2. The dynamics of a panel often fall flat.
What is intended to be a differentiated format often offers no differentiation of its own within itself. There is no emotional charge behind a panel. They suffer from a lack of narrative drive, and there is no cohesive story to captivate and intrigue the audience. Often times the presenters lack chemistry or relation to each other, so even the format of the panel cannot be used correctly.

3. Panel presenters have a broad spectrum of ability.
Some panel members may be very engaging and others may not. This would seem to be fine, but often those that aren't engaging or may not even have much to say about a topic at hand feel obligated to jump in on a topic to fulfill their panel time or justify their presence on the panel. Instead of hearing from an expert in a cohesive way, the audience may hear from several non-experts in a disjointed way. With uneven presentation skills, the audience comes away with the experience provided by the lowest common denominator.

4. Panels give a lack of control over presentations. 
Panels--especially those featuring gracious customers or outside volunteers--offer very little control over the messaging and storyline. It's easy, within a panel discussion, to veer off-topic or into taboo territory. Presenters may grandstand or focus on what they find interesting about a topic versus what the audience needs to know or what the audience finds interesting.

5. Audience questions fizzle out in a panel.
This is not a problem unique to panels, but it can be amplified by the panel format. In order to incorporate audience interaction, panels often will solicit questions from the audience. The audience will then typically ask what is most important to them personally...and it may have absolutely zero relevance to anyone else in the room. Generally audiences are not great at moderating their question level to the broader interest of the group at large. In a panel, then, you may have a question come up with little relevance, but that ends up taking up a large chunk of the panel time.

Panels aren't all bad--don't get us wrong--it's just that they are so often misused and abused. So how does one go about fixing panel perils? Our next blog installment will cover what you can do to make a panel more effective.
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