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How To Host An Awesome Conference Panel

Panels can be insanely wasteful experiences. I spend about a thousand bucks to get a conference ticket, plane flight and hotel to show up in a room where there’s 4 people on stage sitting at a cheap table giving me what is, essentially, an NFL half time report.

“I’d say it’s harder than you think, but not that hard…”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, Larry, and I can tell you: it takes time…”

“I use WordPress. Anyone not heard of WordPress before? Let me tell you all about it for the next 45 minutes.”

“The best way to score points is to get touchdowns, Tim. If I was the coach I’d be telling these guys: ‘score some touchdowns!’”

Thanks for the tips guys… I came to a session titled “13 Pro Tips on Email Management” and ended up with an overview of WordPress and a refresher on the basics of football. Cheers.

Don’t have a shitty panel

If you’re on a panel, don’t let it suck.

They all suck by default. It’s just built into what a panel is, I guess…

But there’s some things you can do to bring focus and intentionality to your panel and make it something truly great.

3 Sections

First thing I want you to do is take a piece of paper and put 2 lines on it, dividing it into 3 sections.

See what we did there? You’re no longer staring at a blank page. All the fear and existential heaviness associated with a blank page is GONE

In it’s place you’ve simply got 3 buckets to fill in. Parts 1, 2 and 3.

These are the three segments of your session and they correspond with 3 popular questions your audience has about your topic.

Pro Tip: Keep a little space open at the top and bottom of the page; these are your intro and outro… setting the whole thing up, tearing it all down.

Worksheets

Make some worksheets. Worksheets require two things from you:

  1. they show you’ve done some work, you’ve prepared for this thing.
  2. they show you’ve thought for at least a second about who the audience is and have at minimum a sliver of care for why they’re at this conference.

This is something I’ve learned from making a handful of courses for Fizzle over the last couple years. I’ve learned to start every course with the worksheets. They force me to think about the action of the learning.

I’ve been in conversations with folks who’ve dazzled and entertained me about business stuff… we talked for hours and I felt productive and inspired. But when I got home and opened up my notebook, ready to turn some of that conversation into serious next steps for my projects, I came up with nothing… no real action.

Don’t create that experience for your panel audience… even if you can dazzle and entertain them.

The worksheets help us get into the action mindset up front. They get us thinking about the take-aways… about the audience… about THEM.

It’s about them… Your panel, the conference, it’s about them.

Screw your recognition and vanity and insights and acumen. Stop being about that.

Instead, be about these eager hopeful faces, the folks trying something, reaching out from the malaise to take a step further, to learn something, to grow, to put their asses on the line for something, for ANYTHING.

The worksheets help you do this. They get you thinking about what they take with them after you’re done dazzling and entertaining.

In our panel we had two worksheets that went along with the second section. They’re meant to be taken home, so they had a few strong questions and a few buckets to fill in… just helpers to remind them and keep them thinking about this stuff after the conference buzz wares off.

Time Limits

How long is your session? 45m? 60m? Subtract about 16 minutes (7m for people filtering in and technical difficulties, 5m for intro, 4m for outro/conclusion) and divide it by 3… that’s how long each section will be.

So if you’ve got 60 minutes for your panel:

  • 07m: Shuffle time… people filtering in, tech difficulties, etc.
  • 05m: Intro… tell us why we’re here, what the problem is, who the people are, what’s gonna happen, what we’re walking away with.
  • 14m: Section 1…
  • 14m: Section 2…
  • 14m: Section 3…
  • 04m: Conclusion… tell us what we heard, remind us why it matters.

By looking at the logistics of time and giving ourselves a very simple 3 act structure with an intro at the beginning and outro at the end we’ve given ourselves a whole framework for the session.

This makes our lives easier as the panel organizers, yes. But what’s best about this is it makes the session more enjoyable for the audience.

It’s not a huge blob of questions and answers taking as much time as we want for each response… it’s organized and intentional, it has the energy of something crafted, something building towards a greater whole (vs. something slowly falling apart over time).

Pro Tip: Set a timer for each section. “Ok, we’ve got 14 minutes for this section, I’m setting my timer now… if the buzzer goes off please finish your thought as quickly as possible and we’ll move on to the next section.”

With this one simple trick we’ve created a bad guy, a villain, someone to blame for the rules. But the bad guy isn’t you; it’s you’re timer. This sense of structure goes a long way in the panel format.

One story per panelist per section

Now, with our simple 3-act setup and time limits, we can talk to each panelist and help them prepare a story for each section.

These stories come from their personal experience. They’re not platitudes or general ideas about a thing. It’s a particular moment in time where they made this mistake or found this trick or learned that lesson, etc.

One of our sections was on working with co-hosts on a podcast. We knew from experience with the audience that they were concerned about finding co-hosts.

Myself, Justin and the Mice, all three of us have a story to tell about this. A real thing that really happened… simply by nature of the fact that we have co-hosts on our podcasts.

We simply tell that story. We don’t try to extrapolate some principle or tactic from the story.

For example, I met Corbett at a party at Blogworld a few years ago. We bonded over shots of Fernet and within a year I was designing ThinkTraffic.net and co-conspiring with him and Caleb on Fizzle.

The point of that story is not the Fernet at Blogworld tactic. If there’s a point at all it’s find the people you like and invest in them… who knows what will come of it.

I bring this up because I see too many people trying to say a thing because they think they need to have a thing to say… almost as if they don’t trust their own experiences to be enough… they need to Gladwell the stories to pull out “what the stories mean” or something, and it’s just not true.

Chances are you’re on a panel because you’ve built something. Your experience is the only lesson you can actually teach from. So focus on the experience, the particular points in time, the sequences, the ways you felt, the fear and vulnerability and bravery, the risk and the rewards…

Pro Tip: Here’s some more tips on how to lean on experience over advice.

Conversation & Drama

You might be wondering: how can each person telling their story possibly fill in 14 minutes of a segment?

This is where your role as panel organizer comes in.

First of all: you’ll be surprised how much people have to share. Some people, if you let them, will easily fill up that time and more.

So be ready to push panelists forward and keep them on task. “Ok, bring it around, Mike; where’s this going?”

Again, the timer is the villain, not you. So you’re working almost as an ambassador for the audience to shepherd the panelists through their story in the most impactful (and timely) way possible.

Secondly: be ready to create conversation and drama.

Conversation is easy: “wow, what was that like? That must have taken some guts to quit like that…” Laugh when it’s funny, ask for more info when it’s unclear, dig deeper when you feel there’s more.

Try to see yourself as the ambassador for the audience — see the audience putting their asses on the line to do their thing, hungry for any tips and tricks and perspective on whatever it is your conference and session is about; see them as capable and likely to be successful in this thing.

When you look at things this way it’s easier to see what matters to them, what if anything they can apply from this panelist’s meandering story, etc. Let that be your compass for deciding when to dig and when to move on.

Another tool you have is drama. If the conversation is “going with” where someone’s going (but looking for more depth or understanding), drama is “going against” what they’re saying.

“Now, I’m going to have to play devil’s advocate here… why on earth would you have made that decision at that time?”

“I gotta say, I don’t agree. I think XYZ is a much better option in times like that.”

Drama like this creates… well, drama. Drama is interesting. Drama makes it feel like there’s something at stake. It makes the session feel fresh, like this moment is really happening and the panelists are really in it (not just reading from some long list of blog posts they’ve written in the past).

The point is not to create fake drama, but to be ballsy enough to create real drama, to show you disagree, to show there are alternate ways to think about a situation, more than one way to skin a cat.

(Who the hell skins cats, anyways!? Sounds horrible.)

So, conversation (digging deeper, going with) and drama (devils advocate, going against) are two great tools you can use as the organizer of the panel to find the moments of real impact, the memorable stuff.

The “one takeaway” trick

At the end of each section, hopefully right before your alarm goes off (I was serious about that timer, by the way) you can ask each panelist: if you could get people to have one take-away from this, what would it be?

We started doing this on the Fizzle Show as a way to bring clarity to free form dialogue and it works great.

Have hard stuff

Anyone can get on stage and talk about “soft stuff.” Do some work beforehand to have some hard stuff prepared.

“Soft stuff” is general human stuff… productivity and focus and life-coaching kinds of things.

“Hard stuff” is data and results and “3 step processes” and quotes and things that have clearly been prepared with intention.

For example, the hard stuff in our panel was a 5 minute bit I prepared on the broadcast clock. I had a couple slides and a prepared monologue about this thing and how podcasters can learn from it without being a slave to it.

It’s solid. It’s hard. I shared examples of broadcast clocks that NPR use. This wasn’t “try hard and hope for a break and do what you love…” This was “there’s 2m up front for this, 15s for this, have one of these ready, you have 2 worksheets on this to do in your own time.”

It doesn’t have to be much, just something that shows you’ve prepared. The worksheets go a long way here.

Also, quotes can feel like “hard stuff,” especially if you’ve got them on a slide all nice and pretty and ready for you. I ended the panel with a heartfelt quote from a radio producer that tied the whole thing up with a matterful little bow. It created one more moment for audience to feel we’ve done some work for this, had some intention to craft this thing.

Do some work to bring some hard stuff to your panel, even if it’s just a quote or two.

A memorable moment

Finally, create some kind of memorable moment. It’d be the easiest thing in the world for you to get up there with 3 other people and do your panel thing and create exactly nothing memorable.

“Oh you were in the panel on the thing? I was thinking of going to that… how was it?”

Most panels get this response: “It was okay.”

Some get this one: “Holy crap, horrible. So awkward. I need a shower.”

Very rarely you get this one: “Pants down the funniest session of the conference.”

That’s memorable.

We went for 2 memorable moments in our panel. The first was the beer. The second was the bell.

The joke is: all of us on the panel are podcasters and long winded. So I got one of those hand bells that any one of us could ring if someone was talking too long.

It got laughs up front when we introduced it as the 5th member of the panel and more laughs throughout as we ACTUALLY USED it. (We really are long winded.)

The bell could probably work for just about any panel.

What memorable moment could you create up there? What physical thing could you bring along? Could you put each of the panelists in an NFL jersey of their team? Could you have an interpretive dance designed for each section? Could you use quotes from the Godfather III to make the final point for each section?

Care

If you want to make your panel exceptional you really only need to care.

Give a damn.

Empathize a little with the audience.

Walk a mile in their shoes, see what they’re trying to build and what their roadblocks are and what’s at stake if they fail.

That care leads to questions like “what can I put in their hands that might actually help them?” Spending just a little time in questions like these with just a sliver of care about finding good answers puts you ahead of just about every panel I’ve seen.

If you have a tip to add, maybe something you’ve seen in a panel before, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear it.

Photo by @shelia_butler. Thanks Shelia!



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