Fixing Your Panel of Peril
That's not to say that you *shouldn't* have panels. Panels *can* be a good solution--they just need to be thought-out and treated very conscientiously.
Here are some ways that you can "fix" a panel, or ensure that your panel isn't just another way to make your audience "check out":
1. Have a Great Moderator.
A panel without a moderator is like a ship without a rudder; the panelists can wander aimlessly or go off in the wrong direction, have unequal time or unequal focus on a subject.
A panel with a bad moderator adds nothing to the topic.
However, a lively, interactive moderator with a working knowledge of the subject matter can steer a panel away from tediousness or focusing too long on a subject. They can sense when the audience is getting restless and switch to a different panelist, change the tone of the discussion, or even wrap up. A great moderator can also inject humor and interaction in a skilled way.
2. Establish strict rules and structured content/outcomes.
We are amazed how frequently people design panels with no outcomes. Like any presentation, a panel should have a focused result in mind; at the end of the panel, what will the audience think, know, and do differently as a result of what they've heard?
Likewise, a panel should have structure and--dare we say it--some rules. The participants should know what to expect and what is expected of them. Too many times companies bring on guest panelists and therefore feel that they have no say over what the panelists choose to do. However, it is imperative to control the panel for the sake of content clarity and audience interest.
Rules sound imposing, but consider something like--say--the presidential debates. A debate isn't exactly the same thing, but imagine how different (long/one-sided/unfocused) they would be if the candidates didn't have firm time limits on their segments.
3. Solicit audience questions ahead of time.
Audience interaction and personalization is a wonderful thing. However, audience questions during a panel so often go astray; audience members ask questions that are only relevant to them, feel shy about asking "real" questions, or just ask questions for the sake of getting face-time.
We wouldn't suggest cutting out audience interaction, but soliciting audience questions ahead of time allows for a number of things:
- You get to sort through the questions to select the most broadly relevant topics.
- You can pre-prepare the panelists so they have relevant/good/thorough answers.
- You can make sure that you get the quality and caliber of questions that you need to make an interesting segment.
- You can steer away from or toward controversy as desired--and you don't get caught up in the mire of a sore subject.
4. Take a cue from late night talk shows--pre-interview panelists to get stories.
Late night talk show guests almost always seem witty, charming, funny and engaging on the show. This isn't because they all *are* witty, charming, funny and engaging (though some may very well be) it's because they have a skilled interviewer (similar to a skilled moderator) and they have been pre-interviewed to get stories.
Stories are one of the most powerful engagement tools a presenter can use. Our brains are naturally attracted to a story; we want to know what happens, brain wave activity increases, we enter active listening mode. A late night talk show guest will have a list of stories prepared that the interviewer can draw from to make the guest seem innately interesting. A panelist should do the same thing; have a reference list of relevant stories and examples prepared around the content at hand.
5. Find points of disagreement/controversy/interest and bring it out.
In pre-panel interviews, find the elements of the topic that will make panelists disagree or--to put it a more diplomatic way--offer differing perspectives. That's not to say that there should be a panel of negativity or fighting--but panels where the only thing a panelist has to contribute to another's opinion is agreement and elaboration get stale fairly quickly. Panelists should be able to talk about a topic from different, diverse angles and bring their unique spin, perspective and opinion to the table in a way that intrigues the audience and inspires them to hear more. Even if there are only one or two points of disagreement or controversy, sprinkle them into the panel to add interest.
The Five Perils of a Panel
Mon, Nov 19 2012 04:50 | Audience Engagement, Brain-based Learning, Lists, Panels, Presentation Tips, Worst Practices
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.