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Why do panels suck and how can we make them better?

I've been working with the folks at the Northside Festival on their new tech and entrepreneurship track to create an amazing conference in Brooklyn this June.  We've got some really awesome speakers lined up and I'm striving to try and make each of these panels good enough to headline other events. 

Yet, for some of the people that I wanted to be there, and others that still agreed to come, the answer was:

"I don't really like panels.  They generally suck."

Honestly, I didn't have much of a response other than promising to do what I could to make them better.  They do, in fact, often suck.  But why?  Is it the format?  Does it have to be this way?

I spoke on a SXSW panel in 2011 that didn't suck.  I know it didn't suck because the first person to ask a question told us that our panel was worth the whole price of admission to the conference and we got the same sentiment echoed on Twitter.  The panel included myself, Emily Hickey, Ben Lerer, and Christine Herron and we spoke about startup mistakes.

The panel didn't suck because it was engineered not to suck.  Here are a few things we did:

  1. First and foremost, the panelists were carefully chosen.  They aren't the biggest VCs and entrepreneurs, but they're some of the most thoughtful ones.  Some of the most successful people simply haven't tought much about why they got where they are--and even if they have, they're just wrong about it because they've only scratched the surface.  These panelists have seen both success and failure, and they've seen it from multiple perspectives--and on top of that, because I knew them well, I knew they'd be able to share those stories.  Not everyone is a good storyteller, so choose carefully.
  2. The moderator had a sense of the story that should come out of the panel.  I knew what I wanted to cover and what I wanted the audience to leave with.  Panels are, or at least should be, stories, and a story is supposed to leave you with something.  You should remember them because they make sense in a structure.  Too many moderators pick something broad like "The Future of the Present" and ask vague questions like, "So what happens after now?"  You'll never get a tight story that people can leave with if that's what you do.  People either need to leave with a specific story or a sense of "If I believe x, this will happen, if I believe y, this will happen."  Moderating is hard and not everyone can do it.  Respect the craft.
  3. The questions were discussed among the panel ahead of time.  We vetted a bunch of topics and decided on the questions that would output the best answers.  That also gave the panelists time to think about their answers.  In fact, they were given a specific format by which they should structure their responses--to think about the tweets that we wanted to see before further explaining.  So, when the question was "How can you tell what makes a good hire?"  Someone would say a one line, tweetable, comment-worthy sentence as an answer before diving in further.
  4. Not everyone answered every question.  Don't you hate when they go through everyone in order and the last two panelsts basically say, "Yeah, what she said..." but they still take 5 minutes to say that.  Some of the questions simply aren't relevent to everyone.  With our panel, each person was asked to answer only 2-3 of the questions, so the answers bounced around the four of us and no more than two people addressed any given question--unless they really had something ridiculously awesome to say.
  5. The panel talked amongst themselves.  We disagreed on a few things, asked questions of each other.  It was like we were real humans sitting next to each other discussing a topic.  Amazing.

I plan on working the moderators hard for Northside--and trying to get people up there who have something to say because they've really thought about it.  We're going to experiment with some formats and try to make the whole thing worthwhile for the people that paid to be there. 

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