Why Conference Panels Are So Boring

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman trashes the professional conference staple: the multi-speaker, moderated panel:

For conference organizers, panels represent an undemanding ask. For participants, they’re a way to put themselves in the middle of the action without needing to invest significant amounts of prep time. Unfortunately, this usually ends up creating a “co-owners are no owners” dynamic. When responsibility gets so distributed, no one feels obligated to carry the show themselves. Even moderators may feel comfortable just winging it.

But this is only the start of a panel’s structural problems. Because there are so many people to introduce, introductions take too long. Because panelists know they’ll only have limited time to speak, they tend to focus on clear and simple messages that will resonate with the broadest number of people. The result is that you get one person giving you an overly simplistic take on the subject at hand. And then the process repeats itself multiple times! Instead of going deeper or providing more nuance, the panel format ensures shallowness.

Even worse, this shallow discourse manifests as polite groupthink. After all, panelists attend conferences for the same reasons that attendees do – they want to make connections and build relationships. So panels end up heavy on positivity and agreement, and light on the sort of discourse which, through contrasting opinions and debate, could potentially be more illuminating.

His preferred alternative? A one-on-one, fireside chat. Or failing that, the panel should be structured so that participants have specific questions to answer to avoid repetitive points, that they only respond to each other when they disagree, and that the audience vote at the end on who was most persuasive.

For my part, I’ve seen boring fireside chats and well-done panels, so the format is not always the issue. The trick to a good panel is mostly in the advance conception and speaker selection, to make sure you have engaging speakers with different viewpoints on a clearly defined question.

But moderation is also key. The best panels I have been on allowed some “opening statements” from speakers but otherwise involved a flow of conversation with a skilled and knowledgeable moderator. And ideally, as Hoffman describes, the panelists then disagree with each other.

Either way, it’s food for thought in an era when people not only have limited time for conferences, but the speakers now have to compete with smart phones for audience attention.