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CIO Unplugged 3/27/13

March 27, 2013 Ed Marx 5 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Panel Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Have you ever attended a panel with anticipation but then ended up wanting to walk out? Well, I’ve participated on a panel and I have walked out.

Panels carry great potential, yet the benefits are seldom realized.

Not long ago, I was part of a panel for a prestigious graduate school career day. The moderator asked us to prepare a five-minute oral overview on our respective organizations and roles. He knew the students would have ample questions and preferred that the panel react to student interests.

We all stayed inside the time boundaries until the final participant. He approached the lectern and began a forced march, death-by-PowerPoint presentation. After 10 minutes, I started catching up on e-mail and Twitter. After 20 minutes, I left the panel and sat in the audience, incredulous. When I left the room at 30 minutes, the panelist was still pontificating and the students had long since checked out.

Shortly thereafter, I was on another panel testifying before the Texas Senate. My fellow panelist asked me beforehand to stay within my time limit because she wanted a fair shot to share her views. That was brash, but I admired her approach. We agreed to split the time, each taking 20 minutes. I also deferred to her, and she spoke first.

At the 25-minute mark, I became slightly annoyed and made subtle motions to get her attention. At the 30-minute mark, I was scrambling to rewrite my script. In the end, I had five minutes. I suppose her earlier brashness should have tipped me off.

I’m sure you have similar stories as an observer or a participant. When a panel hits the mark, I leave fulfilled. When they don’t, I feel as if I’ve squandered my most precious resource.

What’s worse than listening to a bad panel? Participating on a bad panel. Here’s a sprinkling of ideas to help avoid panel pitfalls:

  • Moderator. Like an orchestra conductor, the moderator is the key to making the panel work. Ensure the moderator is qualified and skilled to keep the panel focused and effective.
  • Practice. I noticed that professional moderators engage panelists, individually and as a group, long before the actual event. They query questions in advance and discuss them in warm-up meetings. Ground rules are established.
  • Debate I. I want to pound my head on the table when a panelist says, “I agree with (insert name)” and then goes on to repeat the same point. The value of the panel is in its diversity and getting multiple opinions. If you have nothing new to add, don’t talk.
  • Debate II. An alternative approach is to have the moderator present an opinion and and encourage contrarian viewpoints.
  • Sound bytes. Strong responses need not take longer than two minutes. Short, to-the-point answers are always best and memorable.
  • Size matters. The ideal panel size is three or four. Anything less becomes a speech; anything more becomes annoying.
  • Move on. Not every question requires a response from each panelist. See “Debate.”
  • PowerPoint. No.
  • Furniture. A panel is about the panelists. Tables are a distraction. A row of chairs facing the audience is ideal.
  • Clarity. Keep the panel objective in mind throughout the discussion. Some freedom of discussion is good, but it is very easy to then to head down a rabbit trail.
  • Panel bios. Less is more. The audience can read about how great you are in supplemental materials.
  • Diversity. Individuals should be knowledgeable and articulate, and the group needs to be at least somewhat diverse.
  • Distribution. Ensure each panelist has equal opportunity to respond. Corral pontificators.
  • Timekeepers. Timekeeping ensures focus and keeps panelists from rambling.
  • Parking lot. An effective way of avoiding rabbit trails. “That is a great question; let’s put it on the parking lot.” And then never discuss it again.

While I see the value of a panel, I have to admit I cringe when I’m asked to participate on one. Just because I take personal measures to avoid pitfalls doesn’t guarantee everybody else will.

What ideas do you have on avoiding panel pitfalls and ensuring nobody walks out — including a fellow panelist?

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. A good moderator is the key. They keep things in line & moving. If they are not on their A game then everyone talks at the same time or one lone soul drags on and on without ever stating their point. Reminds me of when CNN or FOX news have several commentators all yacking at the same time. There will be 6 little boxes with faces in them on your TV screen & all of them are all talking at the same time. I totally lose interest at that point & move on to something else. And I agree with the limited bio, we can google that kind of stuff. Good stuff, thanks for sharing.

  2. Ed, having seen you on a panel recently (IHT2 in Austin), I can attest that you walk the talk and are a great panelist. This bullet list is excellent, and has been clipped, and shipped off to three different clients (all offenders at one time or the other).

    I’m also sending it to the sales team at a national Medicaid Conference (which I’m not attending this year because the panels are notoriously poorly curated and moderated).

    Well done!

  3. I just had to say I agree with Holly – a good moderator is key. Damn- I just broke two of your rules!
    OK, so now I will try and add something else to the mix… when I moderate, I try and get my panelists to give their bios as a “tweet” (eg 140 character limit)… which often gives more flavor of who they are than the 5 minute intro I was asked to read in the first place!

    Also – you forgot one of the worst things that happens in these meetings (whether as a panel or general speaker) – and that is the audience member who portends to ask a question, but actually wants to make a big old statement about why he (or his organization, or his company) is so great, and/or how he personally figured out something that the world has missed (and he often points to his self-published white paper as proof). Aaaaghhhh… this is where the best Moderators are key in cutting that person off… my favorite moderator is the one who says that before asking for questions “I will stop you if you are not really asking a direct question”… and then he does it – I love THAT guy!

  4. I must violate rule #3 as well and agree with DrLyle, but with a twist. One of my biggest frustrations with panels is the question from the audience member that tells his/her name, company, educational background, personal activities, their kids achievements, etc… all in an attempt to be recognized and get attention. But more than that is the person that doesn’t have the sense to know that their question has no meaning, doesn’t make sense, isn’t relevant to the topic at hand. I’m not sure if I should feel sorry for that person, or be frustrated with them for wasting everyone’s time and causing a good debate/discussion to derail.

    I attended the CIO Leadership Summit here in Dallas just yesterday, and for the most part, the panels were great. The moderator, I thought, did an excellent job. But I did witness both of my audience member nemesis’, and unfortunately during the first couple of sessions in the morning, I was sitting next to the second type, and that person kept talking softly off and on throughout the panel discussion. It was a huge distraction and very frustrating. I didn’t attend the event to listen to this person, but due to my poor choice of tables, I had a verbal terrorist next to me for nearly an hour.

    Excellent list of suggestions. I will be keeping a copy of this with me as well… Thanks for sharing!!

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