To bore or not to bore: How theatre can save your conference panel

A completely not boring conference panel on the intersection of founders and self-care, featuring (L-R) me, Emily Tavoulareas (Founder and Principal, Mosaik Collective), Marissa Lucero (Founder, MakerStudio/Project Fashioneer), Ari Takata-Vasquez (Founder and Creative Director, Viscera), and Cassie Divine (VP Small Business Segment Leader, Intuit). Source.

How many times have you showed up to a panel, excited and ready to hear from someone you admire, be inspired, or learn mad knowledge bombs?

Ah, panels. When they’re good, they’re great. When they’re not…well, there’s a number of reasons. Maybe one speaker decided to gobble up the entire time slot with their soliloquy, or the back and forth between folks on stage seemed stilted. This can happen at large conferences and in more intimate gatherings at bookstores, libraries, or civic spaces.

The truth is: panels are hard. Putting them on, finding the right mix of guests, managing the time on stage. A solid panel is purposefully designed, with intentional choices made along the way. The good news?

There are a number of things moderators can do ahead of time, and in the moment, to ensure a smooth experience for everyone involved.

One secret? Taking a theatre approach to the big day. The roles in theatre (and entertainment) are analogous to moderating a successful panel: producer, director, writer, stage manager, and more. While taking some best practices from each role and applying them to conference panel moderation may sound a bit hokey, in reality there’s quite a bit of overlap. So much happens ahead of time in theatre to ensure that things go well once the curtain goes up. As you’ll see below, 80% of that is in the preparation before you even go on stage.

Here are 11 lessons learned, and refined, across 20 years of producing shows and speaking at events.

How to prepare ahead of time

Be the producer

Create a strong narrative, with a provocative title and pithy enough abstract, that people will want to come hear about the topic. It’s your job to entice attendees with your vision of what the time on stage will be. One of my favs from the past few years was a panel at Lean Startup Week called “What the private sector can learn from government. (No, that’s not a typo.)” In a nutshell, I was sick of the “Silicon Valley is coming to save government” BS narrative. As part of the first wave of techies who went to DC back in 2012, let’s just say we didn’t agree with the media’s framing of our work. We only were able to do what we did by partnering with the incredible career civil servants in and around Washington, DC. So I reversed the narrative and brought a bunch of gov friends together on a panel to tell the story.

Be the casting director

Invite a broad spectrum of humans to join you so you have a diverse, inclusive panel. We can all do a better job of thinking about who’s going to be on stage with us. We should strive to break the panel parade of pale males populating manels. And the truth is, it’s not hard to do. You just have to try. A few years ago a friend reached out because he’d been invited to be on panel, but he noticed there were no women and no people of color. He asked what to do, and we brainstormed on a response to conference organizer. Now he declines similar conference panel invitations, and actively suggests women, people of color, and LGBT folks to take his place. Be the change you want to see in the world, folks.

Be the stage manager

Build a briefing doc to share with your panelists that lets them know everything they’ll need in one place, and share it with them well in advance. Your doc should include:

  • Title of the panel
  • A short abstract
  • Date/time/location of the panel
  • Short background on each person so they know about each other
  • A rundown (what time you’d like them to arrive, where to meet, time they’ll get mic’d, what time they go on stage, how long the panel is, what time they’ll be released)
  • The flow of the panel
  • The questions
The first section of one of my briefing docs. Full example.

Be the director

Set the tone for your panelists and schedule a prep video chat so they know what vibe you’re going for. This will help them act, and interact, accordingly. The tone I describe most often is “A bunch of old friends getting together and catching up at a coffee shop.” (Even if they don’t know each other.) Saying we’re catching up in a coffee shop sets a very different vibe than being in a corporate meeting or a picnic or a bar. In the pre-panel briefing, I encourage people to feel free to interact each with each other while on stage, jump into each other’s answers (respectfully), and ask each other follow up questions.

A great panel is a conversation, not a series of mini monologues.

Be the writer

Have questions written out ahead of time, with a rough idea of who you’re going to ask. Since you scheduled a prep call for all panelists to meet with you ahead of time, they’ll be familiar with one another, can suggest topics, have a good idea of which questions they’ll be getting, and let you know if there are ones they have a passion for answering. (Because you’ll have these in the briefing doc.) Print out a copy of the doc and bring it with you, along with a pen so you can capture on the fly any interesting things you hear. You can also scribble down any follow-up questions you may want to ask, or new ones that come to mind based on what they say. Sometimes I’ll assign questions to each person, other times I’ll ask which ones they’d like to take. Often, I’ll have a bucket of questions at the bottom of the doc that I let them know I might throw to anyone.

Be the set designer

Literally set the stage. Communicate, and over communicate, to the event producer. Ask them for the slide ratio (16:9 or 4:3), what kind of chairs are available, and the mic situation. I prefer to sit with my panelists, as opposed to asking the questions from the podium. (That just sets up a weird power dynamic and disconnects you in an odd way from them.) Let the organizers know how many chairs you’ll need, and double-check with the stage manager or organizer right before you go on. Once I noticed as we were about to be introduced that there weren’t enough chairs, and you don’t want to be scrambling once you’re actually out there. For slides, I usually just have one behind the panel that includes a headshot, their title, and Twitter handle.

Be the costume designer

Dress for success (and, um, comfort and potentially awkward situations). Find out what type of seating there’ll be and relay that to your panelists ahead of time. Wearing skirts or kilts can be a tricky situation with stools or high chairs. The type of mics are also something you’re going to want to share with the panelists to help them dress appropriately. Hand mics are no problem, but it can be hard with the lavalier or Madonna mic if you don’t have a belt or pockets or waistband to clip them to.

What to do during the panel

Be the narrator (and do improv!) plus 4 bonus tips

Never, ever let panelists introduce themselves. It takes entirely too much time, no matter how many parameters and limits you give them. The audience presumably already read their bios in the program or on the website, so as moderator you’re just giving the audience a quick reminder and setting context. Use the 10 to 15 seconds before you throw their first question to them to weave in something about their past. For example:

Vivian​, you were a co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, then on the founding team at U.S. Digital Service. In thinking about assembling the team with the right mix of skills to deliver impact at scale for the first class of PIFs back in 2012, how did you approach that?

It is a terrible, no good, very bad idea to be the moderator who asks a question and then asks every. Single. Panelist. To answer it. This is your quickest and easiest ticket to Snoozeville Central. Everyone has a role to play on stage, and it would be terribly boring and very Groundhog Day-ish if they all just answered the same one. Because you’ve done all the legwork ahead of time, you’ve structured the session in a way that they can all get across their points of view on something unique, which will keep the audience engaged and, quite honestly, the panelists energized.

Have actionable content. I cannot emphasize this enough. Gone are the days of people waxing pseudo-eloquently and droning on. Don’t be that person who lets it happen. And definitely don’t let panelists pitch their product or company. You’re the moderator. I grant you the power, invested in me by the internet, to channel your inner Julie Taymor and cut them off. People, in most cases, paid good cash money to come to the event. Reward them handsomely by making sure they walk away with golden nuggets to take back to their job or their life. Bonus: encourage panelists to share stories — people remember them more.

Keep the chaos organized and moving along on stage. The best reason for your briefing doc and rundown is so you know what you’d like to do up there. And if you stray from it while on stage you intentionally know where you’re choosing to veer from — and have a roadmap for where to get back. You should also be actively listening to the panelists and ebbing and flowing the direction where you see the conversation going. Just like you’re paying attention to the audience and picking up notes of where you see their energy — and adjusting or going deeper on things. It’s also on you to help move things along if somebody’s going long. An easy old trick is saying, “We could listen to you talk all day about that, Chad. [PIVOT] Shani, I’d love to hear your thoughts on…”


Epilogue

Here’s the briefing doc I created that I use for each panel or fireside chat. It includes all of the above logistical stuff, and you can see how to structure the flow of questions and how to introduce people before throwing the question to them. Take it! Steal it! Feel free to use it or make it your own!

By taking a theatre approach to moderating panels and fireside chats, you can set the panelists and audience members up for success and design an enjoyable, memorable experience for all. Break a leg!

End scene.


Kara’s time in Hollywood included the Oscars, the Emmys, an NBC/DreamWorks pilot, and the Geffen Playhouse. Fun fact: she’s also a classically trained actress who appeared — most notably, or forgettably, depending on your point of view — on an episode of Glee. She’s executive produced and directed numerous TEDx events, and coached nearly 500 speakers over the years. Now she works in tech. Go figure. According to her 2nd grade report card, “Kara likes to talk. A lot.” Twitter: @KaraDeFrias. Web: karadefrias.com

A deep thank you to Anne Hjortshoj and Jd Bowman for their help and edits to this piece, to Cassie Divine for brainstorming a theatre nerdtastic title, and to Lisa deBettencourt and Scott Berkun for their encouragement!