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.