I’ve noticed something at trade shows, and chances are you’ve noticed it too.
There are more and more “panel discussions” instead of traditional presentations. Panel discussions involve a small group of people sitting in comfortable chairs on a stage, with each one taking turns opining on some general question posed by a moderator.
I’ve been in a number of panel discussions over the years. They have some advantages. The audience members might be exposed to diverse perspectives, and while one bad presenter can ruin a session, one bad panelist is only a minor annoyance. I’ve also made some great business contacts over the years with some fellow panelists.
But there is one reason why we’re seeing panel discussion elbow out more in-depth presentations on important topics: money.
Trade shows are under the same pressure to provide a return for their investors as any other business. Selling “sponsorships” is a key way to do that (where a company gets recognition/branding in exchange for a fairly hefty fee, depending upon the show). Many vendors want to be heard from as well as seen during the show, so they negotiate for a speaking slot. Show organizers say “sure – but you need to be a sponsor of our show – that will be $10,000”. So, the more speakers a show can accommodate, the more revenue they can plausibly drive from sponsorships. It’s as simple as that.
What I’ve noticed happening lately however is that the panel discussions have become stale. The moderator’s questions are frequently very general, thus enabling panelists to wander into any topic they want to talk about (and since they’re paying for the right to be on stage, they’re given latitude when they wander).
There are others who feel like a good panel is one where there is friction between points of view, so the moderator tries to foment disagreement between panelists (note to those moderators: if I wanted to watch people argue with each other, I could simply stay at home and watch cable news channels).
The other problem with panels is that the panelists are exceedingly comfortable, often in a chair holding a microphone with no natural catalyst for movement.
What is going on here (apart from the money, which is the main thing) is this: bad presentations. Trade show attendees (myself included) have sat through interminably boring slide presentations (I previously wrote about how to use Powerpoint wisely over at Steamfeed.com) and corporate commercials that masquerade as thought leadership.
If you want something from someone, give them something first. If you want attention from your audience, give them good content. If you want engagement from them after you’re done, provoke their curiosity. If you want to be respected, treat the audience with respect by not hawking your company’s latest product.
And as for panels, I’m worried that we’ll be stuck with them for the foreseeable future, so perhaps we can make them better. Here are my humble ideas:
- Less is more. If the session is 1 hour, and you want Q&A, limit your panel to 3 panelists at the most. Two is better. True story: I once was a part of an industry panel that had about twelve panelists. It was chaos.
- Crowd-Sourced Questions. Attendees already know the session description, and they obviously have some general interest in the topic otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Consider getting questions ahead of time from early arriving audience members, or invite pre-session questions to be sent to an email address published in the pre-conference agenda.
- Find Great Moderators and Use Them. Moderating a panel is an art form, and requires a firm but fair moderator to step in when a panelist is wandering and get them back on track. The moderator is there as an advocate for the audience – not the panelists.
And remember the bottom line: it doesn’t really matter if you’re a panelist or a lone presenter. Content is king. Deliver a great presentation and you’ll be invited back.
For further reading on delivering great presentations, I recommend this book by Jeremy Donovan.