Make Sure Your Panel Discussion Includes Some DISCUSSION

I went to a half-day seminar at a law school last week and sat through what turned out to be a tutorial on how NOT to run a seminar. I won't mention where it was exactly because I don't want to embarrass anyone, but the topic was “investigations.” I do want to talk about some of the things that went wrong, so we can all learn to from those mistakes.

First, let's mention the good things. The school hosting the seminar did a great job. There were over 300 attendees, so organizing check-in and check-out was no small feat. Check-in was smooth, well-staffed. The handouts were slick. There was coffee. It was hot. There was lots of it. Everything started on time. So far so good, right?

Yes. It wasn't until the actual speaking started that things went down hill. To be fair, the introductory plenary session was fine. The guest speaker was good. My only criticism was that it lasted for 60 minutes. For me, that's a long time, especially because the two following substantive sessions were also 60 minutes in length. I think, generally, a plenary session at the top of a seminar needs to spark our interest and provide some momentum for the next session. In other words, the introduction of the book should not be as long as the actual chapters.

Also, there was no break between that 60-minute plenary session and the following 60-minute session. Two hours is a long time to ask people to sit in their seats without a break, unless you have something REALLY exciting to speak about, and you can speak about it in an exciting way. Neither of those thresholds were met. Also, the transition between getting the plenary speaker off the stage and getting the first panel of speakers on the stage was super-awkward.

But all these minor flubs probably wouldn't have blossomed into a full-blown disaster without what followed in the first substantive session, which was billed as a "Panel Discussion". 

At the front of the room, four panelists and a moderator park themselves at seats behind a table,  making the audience feel even further away from the presenters than they are. Over the next 60 minutes, none of them move, none of them ask any questions (of the audience, or each other). The moderator introduced herself, and thanked the audience for coming, giving a “shout-out” to colleagues in the audience. She then introduced the topic by speaking about her role in dealing with investigations in her workplace, and mentioning that her guest panelists deal with investigations in their respective organizations.

So far, this panel discussion is gearing up to be a snooze, with all the guests basically trapped in chairs behind a table, but not a total wreck.

We then move to the first guest panelist. She thanked the moderator for the introduction, then  gave a “shout-out” to her colleagues in the audience. Then she basically gave  a 12-minute description of her work as an investigator. She does not pick up from where the moderator left off, and the moderator doesn't ask her a single question. They also take no questions from the audience. So, now there have been two introductions, one by the moderator and one by our first “expert” panelist, who used her 12 minutes to introduce herself to the audience.

Moving on to our second panelist, we go through the same pattern: he thanks the moderator, gives another “shout-out”, then gives prepared remarks about his work as an investigator, basically just stating a series of facts about his work. Again, no questions, no discussion. Now we've had three introductory speeches.

The pattern continued right through to the fourth panelist. By the time she finished, the session was 10 minutes over time. I sprinted out for coffee right after I woke up.

I won't bore you with the details of the second panel of the day. It was slightly better on content, but the problems were largely the same: seated, static, lack of discussion, lack of insight, lack of imagination. However, here are few observations that might help us all on our next seminar-style public speaking gig:

  1. When running a panel discussion, it's usually a good idea to have some DISCUSSION. If you are a moderator, you need to constantly be looking for ways to keep the audience interested. Try to listen to your speakers with the ears of an uninitiated audience member: What context does the audience need? What about the topic is most interesting to the audience?
  2. Shout-outs (different from "call-outs" mentioned in a previous posting) are a nice way to recognize and validate your audience members, but can't be done over and over again. Each time this tactic was repeated it felt a little more hollow and annoying. It's also not respectful of the audience's time.
  3. When you're on a panel as an expert in a topic, it's usually a good idea to make your presentation about the big ideas and hidden connections you've been able to glean through your work on the topic. That way, you are giving the audience insight that it might not otherwise have. These panelists basically gave us their bios and a description of their current jobs. Neither insightful nor interesting.
  4. If you have a choice, don't seat yourself behind a table for your panel. It makes it harder for the audience to connect, and it will sap your ability to keep the audience interested.
  5. If you're participating with guests, it's a good to know what your fellow-panelists are going to say.  That way you can make sure in your prep that your speech isn't going to rehash the same ground. 

These are simple ideas, but can be easy to forget if you don't have a chance put them into practice. If you want some practice in a safe, fun environment, contact MUSE today.