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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
WordCamp US is over and I’m watching scores of recap posts slide by on my feed. I don’t have a recap of the content, which will 100% not cause anyone to miss vital information, but I do have a recap of my experience.
It was my invitation to this event last year that changed everything. In my five year plan (yes, I have my own five year plan) one of my major goals was to speak at WordCamp San Francisco, a place where the cream of the WordPress crop could be found. My plan had that set for 2016, so when I got to check that off my list in 2014 I admit that I wasn’t sure what to do next in that arena. My time spent at WordCamp San Francisco and the accompanying events was the most enriching experience I’d had to date. Thinking back on it, and the renewed admiration I had for this community, I couldn’t imagine that this year would be any less fantastic.
Which brings me to WordCamp US.
I spent much of my time with contributors and collaborators who build and guide the WordPress project and my heart and mind have been irrevocably expanded. This may seem like an incredibly difficult way to spend a week, but I truly feel more invigorated for it. Being around this community, even if it’s a small subset, always reminds me of just how wonderful they are.
What do I love so much about them? I have a short list here.
They are giving, but self-aware. Most don’t give more than they have, but all of them give what they absolutely can.
They are passionate. We don’t all have matching things we’re passionate about, but that only makes me want to hear about what they love so deeply.
They question things when they don’t know or don’t agree. The willingness to question where you are, no matter how you arrived there, is an admirable thing and one that takes an immense amount of courage.
They look out for each other. I have no other things to say about this one. It’s just wonderful and true.
There are other things of course. There are things that aren’t so great, too, because we’re all people. People are delightfully complex no matter how well they work together.
So, here’s to all you wonderful WordPressers out there. May you never cease to amaze.
This past weekend I headed south for a bit of quality community time in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The lovely folks there can teach a thing or two about WordPress just as easily as they teach you about hospitality. I didn’t take any pictures all weekend, so I have for you one picture of me with a banner and one picture of a merhog.
In case you are unsure of what a merhog is…it’s a hog with a fish tail. It is mythical. Honestly, it’s probably the myth of a myth, but here it is in all its glory regardless. A glorious myth’s myth.
Thank you and good night.
I had planned to make this a collection of sites and sounds of Brisbane, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to record video on my camera. So, here we have a collection of photos from my trip and WordCamp Brisbane.