On Panels

Credit: Max Pixel

I don’t like panels. I don’t like them as an audience member, because I find they are usually unfocused and boring – there always seems to be one guy who talks too much and says too little. I don’t like them as a moderator, because it’s a lot of work. And I don’t like them as a panelist because I don’t love extemporaneous speaking, and I worry I will be next to the guy who talks too much and says too little, and need to interrupt him. Or worse, that I will be him (is it possible to be that guy with you’ve been socialized to be paranoid about taking up too much space?)

At events with lots of panels, I’ll talk with people and we’ll say, meh, most panels are bad. So why do we have them? Because in theory panels can be really good. Having different perspectives, taking on a topic from multiple angles… this is a counterpoint to one-dimensional Think Pieces and their on-stage equivalents.

The other reason for panels is that it fills a slot with less work… which is a reason for a lot of them being bad. A good panel might (I’m not convinced) be less work than preparing a talk, but it’s not no work.

A final reason not to enjoy being a panelist: it’s scary to get on stage with people you don’t know. You don’t know what they will say, how your ideas connect – and where they don’t. You don’t know if they are anxious too – and if they are anxious, how that anxiety will manifest.

I was on a panel the other day, and it wasn’t my favourite, but the worst part of it was how much time I spent angsting about it. This was a thing that I worried about, daily, in the time leading up to it, but in a way where I was just frustrated and didn’t feel like I had the time to do anything about it.

If I wanted to be happier as a panelist, I would need to figure out two things:

  • How do you get comfortable giving up control on stage?
  • How do you get better at extemporaneous speaking?

Both of these things are related – I believe in preparation as the best antidote to on-stage anxiety.

Sometimes you prepare actively – as with a talk. But sometimes you prepare generally, for surprises. When I’ve done my best extemporaneous remarks, these have been topics that I have thought deeply and written (or ranted on Twitter) about.

I’m interested in other people’s thoughts on panels: what do you like about them? What don’t you like about them? How do you prepare as a panelist? A moderator?

6 replies on “On Panels”

Panels at WisCon, the feminist scifi convention I try to attend every year, are usually worthwhile as a participant and as an attendee. Some factors:

* WisCon has a ton of different sessions going on at once, and hundreds of panels throughout the con, which lowers the stakes for any one panel, usually, and makes it possible for panels to dive into a single specific topic for 75 minutes. This also strengthens cultural expectations of what a WisCon panel is supposed to be like.
* Anyone can propose a session, so most panel ideas come from community members and are then shaped by the programming committee. Each panel has a title and a paragraph-long description to make it easier for volunteers to decide what to sign up for (as panel participants or moderators) and to set audience expectations. It’s quite common for panels to veer off the panel description but it’s expected that the program item as listed in the schedule is the main jumping-off point.
* WisCon gives all panel moderators advice on how to moderate well, both as a written document available well in advance of the con, and in a “so you’re moderating your first panel” session early in the con.
* Usually, in the weeks leading up to the panel, the moderator and panellists communicate via email to create a lightweight structure and agenda for the panel, giving everyone a chance to shape the discussion and to prepare their own anecdotes, talking points, references, etc.
* A panel’s members meet 10-15 minutes ahead of time in the con’s Green Room, giving them a last-minute chance to prep agenda, learn each others’ faces, etc.
* Most attendees, and most panel participants, are women, so that affects gendered communication interactions.
* Every panel member has, in front of them, a name card. The back of the name card (visible to the panellist) tells them the panel name and description, the names of the moderator and the other panellists, and the time and date of their next panel assignment (if they have one).

I **love** the amount of thought that has gone into making these panels effective – I wish more events did that work!

I love good panels. I abhor bad ones. As both an audience member and a panelist, the good panel is one where the topic is focused and of interest to the audience. But more than that, it has to be an area where there’s no single right answer, but there are answers that are similar. I wouldn’t want to sit through a panel were everyone is finding different ways to say the same thing, but I also wouldn’t want to sit through a panel where there’s no agreement and it turns into a debate.

For me, the single most critical feature is having a moderator that is prepared to ask questions if the audience doesn’t and to direct the flow of responses. This means both letting the panelists step up to answer questions, but also specifically getting answers when one panelist starts dominating.

For myself, being a panelist is easier than giving a talk because I’m very comfortable extemporizing. But being a moderator (or at least a good moderator) is a really difficult task. I suspect that’s why most panels are skippable.

Most teaching for how to give a good talk revolves around telling a good story. Stories are what we remember. They are how humans have passed on information for centuries. Building a narrative around your content, introducing the characters, building up tension, suspense, a climax and ultimately a satisfying conclusion is all part of a talk.

Most panels have none of this, there is no structure, just people speaking. Some seem like extended Q&A sessions, and who’s favourite part of any talk was the Q&A afterwards?

It takes a very, very good moderator to drive the same sort of narrative from a panel as from an individual who has worked hard on a talk.

That’s why I dislike panels. More importantly for all involved, it’s why I and most others forget panels after they are done.

> Most panels have none of this, there is no structure, just people speaking. Some seem like extended Q&A sessions, and who’s favourite part of any talk was the Q&A afterwards?


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