As an audience member, I’ve been at the receiving end of some less-than-stellar panel discussions at conferences in the last few months. On these occasions, even though there’s good reason to think that the individuals on the panels are often very interesting in their own right, somehow the “talking heads” format of a panel can result in low energy and low interest. The panellists make dull statements in response to generic questions and … interest seeps away.
On the other hand, I’ve also recently seen some outstandingly good panels, where the assembled participants bring real collective insight, and the audience pulse keeps beating. Here are two examples:
- During the Web 2.0 Summit three weeks ago (where there also happened to be quite a lot of dull panels), the panel on “The Web And Politics” zipped along with real passion: panel chair John Heilemann catalysed a blizzard of compelling remarks and insightful interplay from Arianna Huffington, Gavin Newsom (mayor of San Francisco), and Joe Trippi;
- The following week, at the venerable RSA in London, a panel consisting of four eminent economists and one thought-provoking journalist tackled the subject “The Age of Austerity: Keynes and the Crisis“, ably chaired by RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor. The panel gave each member 10 minutes in turn to make an opening statement: Lord Robert Skidelsky, Martin Wolf, Dr Andrew Lilico, Lord Desai, and John Naish. Befitting the pedigree of the speakers, it was a much more cerebral panel, but still full of feist. There followed another 30 of animated question-and-answer from the audience. I found it fascinating – and it seemed (from the hearty applause at the end) that I wasn’t alone in this judgement.
The format of this fine RSA panel was in the back of my mind as I prepared, last Monday, to take part in a panel myself: “What’s so smart about Smartphone Operating Systems“, at the Future of Mobile event in London. I shared the stage with some illustrious industry colleages: Olivier Bartholot of Purple Labs, Andy Bush of the LiMo Foundation, Rich Miner of Android, James McCarthy of Microsoft, and the panel chair, Simon Rockman of Sony Ericsson. I had high hopes of the panel generating and conveying some useful new insights for the audience.
Alas, for at least some members of the audience, this panel fell into the “less-than-stellar” category mentioned above, rather than the better examples:
- Tomaž Štolfa, writing in his blog “Funky Karaoke“, rated this panel as just 1 out of 5, with the damning comment “a bunch of mobile OS guys, talking about the wrong problems. Where are cross platform standards?!?”; Tomaž gave every other panel or speaker a rating of at least 3 out of 5;
- Adam Cohen-Rose, in his blog “Expanding horizons“, summed up the panel as follows: “This was a rather boring panel discussion: despite Simon’s best attempts to make the panellists squirm, they stayed very tame and non-committal. The best bits was the thinly veiled spatting between Microsoft and Google — but again, this was nothing new…”;
- The Twitter back-channel for the event (“#FOM“) had remarks disparaging this panel as “suits” and “monologue” and “big boys”.
It’s true that I can find other links or tweets that were more complimentary about this panel – but none of these comments pick this panel out as being one of the highlights of the day.
As someone who takes communication very seriously, I have to ask myself, “what went wrong?” – and, even more pertinently, “what should I do differently, for future panels?”.
I toyed for a while with the idea that over-usage of Twitter by some audience members diminishes the ability of these audience members to concentrate sufficiently and to pick out what’s actually genuinely interesting in what’s being said. This is akin to Nicholas Carr’s argument that “Google is making us stupid“:
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…”
After all, I do think that I said something interesting when it was my turn to speak – see the script I prepared in advance. But after more reflection, I gave up on the idea of excusing the panel’s poor rating by that kind of self-serving argument (which blames the audience rather than panellists). That was after I remembered my own experience as being on the receiving end of lots of uninspiring panels – as I mentioned earlier. Further, I remembered that, when these panels started to become boring, my own attention would wander … so I would miss anything more interesting that was said later on.
So on reflection, here are my conclusions, for avoiding similar problems with future panels:
- Pre-prepared remarks are fine. There’s nothing wrong in itself with having something prepared to say, that takes several minutes to say it. These opening comments can and should provide better context for the Q&A part of the panel that follows;
- However, high energy is vital; especially with an audience where people might get distracted, I ought to be sure that I speak with passion, as well as with intellectual rigour; this may be hard when we’re all sitting down (that’s why sofa panels are probably the worst of all), but it’s not impossible;
- The first requirement is actually to be sure the audience is motivated to listen to the discussion – the panel participants need to ensure that the audience recognise the topic as sufficiently relevant. On reflection, our “mobile operating systems” panel would have been better placed later on in the agenda for the day, rather than right at the beginning. That would have allowed us to create bridges between problems identified in earlier sessions, and the solutions we wanted to talk about;
- “Less is more” can apply to interventions in panels as well as to product specs (and to blogs…); instead of trying to convey so much material in my opening remarks, I should have prioritised at most two or three soundbites, and looked to cover the others during later discussion.
These are my thoughts for when I participate as a panellist on someone else’s panel. When I am a chair (as I’ll be at the Symbian Partner Event next month in San Francisco) I’ll have different lessons to bear in mind!