February 25


Good explanation of “why panels suck” – and what to do about it

Over at Blogarithms, Doug Kaye writes about “Why panels suck” when we attend conferences. It struck me as a fitting follow-up to the reader question from the other day and the subsequent discussion on the catalyst community forum (registration required, please use: Firstname.Lastname when making a new account).

A lot of us are plain unhappy with the quality of panels at the conferences we attend in security, and apparently in other fields, too. I think Doug nailed it when he pointed out:

The problems are threefold. First, conference producers tend to staff panels using speakers they don’t think are strong enough to justify solo sessions. Second, some producers use panel-slot invitations as payback/thanks for favors. Third, there just isn’t enough time. I’ve flown from one coast to the other, burning up the better part of three days, to be one of five speakers on a one-hour panel. How much value can I transfer in just 12 minutes?

When coaching someone who is going to be on a panel, my first question is ALWAYS: did you prepare? I always am amazed that people think being on a panel means “no prep required” (it’s worse, of course, when they are solo speakers and feel that way). Of course, if it’s your role AS the moderator, then you not only have to prepare yourself, but then you are responsible for actively preparing the panelists! I even think you need to be prepared to guide them or otherwise support their efforts in the event something bad happens (prepare for the worst, hope for the best).

I am shocked, no appalled, well, shocked and appalled at the number of people who present at conferences that don’t prepare. How can you present any message without preparing and rehearsing?? No one is that good. When speaking – the best thing you can do (besides having _something_ to say that others want to listen to) is to practice, practice, practice. Keynotes that I have delivered a dozen times get practiced and rehearsed as if it were the first time I am giving them.

Everyone prepares differently, so I’d suggest it ranges from 2:1 to 20:1 to be successfully prepared (so yes, a 60 minute presentation could take 20-30 hours to rehearse AFTER it’s been written). In Speaking about Security – we go into detail on how to prepare. If athletes practice their game, we need to practice our presentation. If you spend all your time practicing, refining your message, distilling the key elements… then when you actually get in front of the crowd, we will be wowed (or at least we won’t be bored or otherwise distracted). This is precisely why we were asked to create Speaking about Security – and I will unveil more to you in the coming weeks.

So – if you are a moderator of a panel, you’re the leader. It’s your responsibility to set the tempo long before the event. Talk to each panelist before hand and run some ideas by them. Gauge their responses, tempo and perhaps tailor questions that will bring out the best in them. Encourage everyone to prepare. Then practice – if only on a conference call. Have dinner together the night before and practice again. When you are presenting – have fun, smile and bring your value to the table. We’ll all thank you for your efforts and remember the impression you made.

Here are some additional excellent suggestions for how to moderate or participate on a panel:

Guy Kawasaki (who prepares as much or more than I do!): How to Kick Butt On a Panel

Mike Ma shares some ideas for Moderating a Panel (and some good ideas here that I hadn’t considered – I like creating a fake event to work through)

If you invest the time to make it happen, it will pay off in terms of value communicated and the way you connect with others. If you take this seriously and practice, then not only will your message will be heard, but you’ll set an example for others to follow. If more of us did this, then our conferences would be _awesome_ to attend and we can work together to really advance the profession. Now that just brings a smile to my face.


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