The Panel Predicament

For anyone who has worked with me organizing content-driven events, you will have heard me say regularly how much I hate panels. I am quick to declare my dislike of them, but generally only in the safety of a group of organizers. I’ll try to provide some clarity in the need for panels, why I dislike most panels I see, and what we can change to make them better.

The Value of Panels

In theory, I understand the appeal of panels. There is a lot of information available in the world, and it’s increasingly difficult to assess how trustworthy to consider the opinion of any self-proclaimed expert. There are many ways to achieve expert level opinions: by education, by research, by practice. Probably other ways, too. To solve the problem, we host panels. We gather industry thought leaders or experts and have them discuss things openly, in the accountability-forging context of “filming in front of a live audience”. We then leave it up to the audience to decide — what is your version of this truth that we’ve presented to you, almost without editorial aid?

The Failing of Panels

In practice, panels are far from that. They are either overpowered by a single voice or are overpowered by apparent fighting among the panelists. Moderators double as panelists and leave the group with no discernible direction. Panelists answer in a round robin style, often leaving no time for interesting or informed viewpoints to shine through. Panels are overstaffed and used as a way to prevent the discomfort of having to turn down speakers. Most people don’t apply to be on a panel, and many who get assigned to participate on a panel think that it means no preparation is required.

The Best Panels

It’s not that we’ve never seen a good panel. We see them from time to time, on TV or at large-scale niche events. There is a lot of writing available about how to be a better speaker, but not a lot about how to be a better panelist. Or even how to craft an excellent panel as an organizer. So I’ll tell you what’s proven to work for me over the years, as a long-time event organizer.

Crafting an Excellent Panel

In my experience, the best panels require a thoughtful moderator and panelists with a decent level of rapport (but not best friends). It’s great if you already have a group that fits that description. If you don’t there is a short, simple process that you can follow to foster one from the expert panel you have assembled.
  1. Dedicated Moderator – Find your moderator first, because you’ll need them throughout this process. The best moderators keep the discussion moving by helping with time management, directing questions toward particular panelists, and resisting the urge to join the discussion.
  2. Limited Number – If the time allowed for your panel is one hour, you should select no more than three panelists not including the moderator. That gives each speaker about 15-20 accumulated minutes assuming everything else is perfect.
  3. Prepare Panelists – Your moderator and panelists should have two meetings. Each meeting should take about an hour and be via voice (or a video call if you feel fancy). In the first one, do some general introductions and learn about everyone’s expertise as it relates to your broad topic. The moderator should take notes* and the panelists should explore what they are all excited about so that a topic can be defined.
  4. Clarify Your Topic – After the first meeting, the moderator will know what the most interesting areas of expertise each panelist has. That will help them guide questions (whether prepared or from the audience) to the right people. It will also help create a panel title that is clear, concise, and marketable.
  5. Written Questions – In the second meeting, the moderator should have some questions that have already generated interesting discussions among the panelists. Ask the panelists if, since their last meeting, they’ve been wondering about something another panelist said. Write down 5-10 questions and be prepared to start the panel on the day with 2-3 of them.

Rinse and Repeat

That’s it! Five steps and most of them are talking. 🙂 The first time through it will feel strange and uncomfortable, but after that it’s like riding a bike. *A note on notes. If you’re the moderator the notes you’re taking are:
  • who has a tendency to talk the most
  • who needs encouragement to talk
  • what panelists do 
  • what panelists wish they could do
  • why they do what they do (their philosophies)
  • why their future vision is what it is (their observations)
  • etc

Enclothed Cognition

I work in a company that is fully remote, and one of the things most commonly touted as a perk is the ability to work in an environment of your own choosing. You can work from the sofa or from a desk. You can work with music playing or in complete silence. You can work surrounded by people or you can work 8 hours solo.

But one of the things that comes up most often as a perk, is freedom to dress as you choose. Being free from the judgmental eyes of your differently-dressed colleagues, and therefore free to dress however you choose, can be a liberating prospect.

I tried briefly to dress casually but, having mostly worked in corporate spaces before, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really preparing myself for work.

Turns out, this wasn’t in my mind. It’s independently observable enough, that it even has a name: enclothed cognition.

As a bonus, the very act of getting ready every day adds to your daily routine which has proven benefits for your mental health, productivity, and probably lots more. 🙂

The Courage of Failing Publicly

When I was in high school, I once refused to do something that my friends were doing because I knew I wouldn’t like the outcome. When pressed about how I knew and asked “Have you ever tried?” my response was this:

I don’t have time to learn from only my own mistakes.

I’ve never been particularly fond of the notion that in order to know what will and won’t happen one has to personally do all the dirty work of learning.

Knowing this about me, it’s less surprising to hear that I’ve spent a lot of time lately encouraging those around me to “fail publicly”. It’s not an easy call to make, of course. No one likes being wrong, let alone being wrong where everyone can see you. The idea behind it is this: if something doesn’t go as planned, and others can see it, then they can help find a stronger solution.

But there are two chances for discomfort here that I rarely, if ever, acknowledge. Boldly doing something in front of people while knowing that it could go badly is a clear risk. It doesn’t matter what that something is, public imperfection is terrifying. The other discomfort comes after that, though.

Failing publicly has no benefit to us, although it still might to others, if we are not able to learn from it. Growth is never something that comes easy and, if we aren’t open to the idea that something needs to be fixed, personal growth can be stopped in its tracks entirely.

I work on projects that, when done well, are intensely public and open. I have made so many mistakes during my time working on them and witnessed even more than I have made. I didn’t start out with the willingness to share my failings and I think that other people could have learned from me… even if I couldn’t have learned from myself at the time.

So… Note to Self – Do what you can with what you’ve got and let people see where you don’t have what it takes. Someone else might have exactly what is needed to get the job done.

Stressed? Try This.

Today is National Stress Awareness Day and, because I will take any excuse to celebrate a thing, I think we should share the ways we all handle stress in our day to day lives.

I will say right up front that I am no expert, but even non-experts can provide valuable insight. Here are a few of the things I do when I’m starting to feel a little stressed:

  • Take my dog for a walk around the block.
  • Write down something that made me happy today (I use the Happier app, but any recognition of happy things will work).
  • Make sure I’ve eaten recently and, if I haven’t, find a healthy crunchy snack. The crunchy part is important for me, personally, for whatever reason.
  • Remind myself of what I have gotten accomplished today.
  • Turn off all my notifications and take a yoga break.
  • Call/chat with one of my IRL mentors, heroes, or role models.
  • Listen to some rockin’ beats. Maybe even dance a little.

Stress management is an ongoing process, though, and it’s easier to deal with it if you do small maintenance every day regardless of how stressed you feel. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself, mentally and physically.

If you’ve got ways that you keep your stress levels low, share them in the comments!