The Case Against Panels

If you are organizing a conference or meetup, we’d like to humbly propose the following: a panel for your event is probably not the way to go. Instead, split the same time among the participants and ask them to prepare presentations. (Or feature some in 1-on-1 fireside chats.) Here’s why.

Sarah Cordivano
DEI @ Work
6 min readFeb 17, 2019

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This post is jointly written by Sarah Cordivano and Elad Verbin.

Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Spontaneous = Underprepared

Recall the last time you’ve seen a really excellent talk. For us, it’s Carla Harris’s talk How to find the person who can help you get ahead at work. We love this talk for several reasons, including how incredibly well-prepared it is. Every point made is executed perfectly. When speakers prepare for talks, they may spend 40 hours or more at home for every hour on stage, in assembling, preparing and practicing the talk to get it just right. That preparation means the content is well thought out, well-structured and that the arguments are clear.

In a panel, participants need not prepare. The discussion is spontaneous, organic, unrehearsed and dynamic, or so the theory goes. In reality, a panel forces the participants to think on their feet, which makes makes the discussion actually stunted, superficial and half-baked. Panels are said to be conversational and interactive, but in reality panelists don’t interact and discuss as they would in real life, because they are on stage in front of an audience. Even brilliant speakers will often underperform in a panel, simply because no one thinks on their feet fast enough.

Panels often start with zero background, and panelists are not given any dedicated time to provide relevant context. This means panels are forced to be superficial by construction: there is no time to provide background or construct a complex argument, and any transfer of knowledge must be boiled down to one-minute talking-points. Panels are exceptional in their ability to take interesting people with something to say, and to prevent them from delivering meaningful insight or transferring knowledge.

Even if there is an amazing panel participant whose every talking point is nuanced and crisp, that person would probably perform even better as a speaker — think how much more profound their points would be if they could prepare them in advance!

Only the loudest are heard

We’ve all seen a panel where one or two dominating personalities take over the conversation with long, rambling arguments. Especially on panels with more than three panelists, it feels like there are often a few perspectives left out. In the end, the panelists who are loudest and speak the most are the only ones heard. Nuanced views are often drowned out by more popular and superficial takes. When we see an impressive lineup for a panel, we want to hear from everyone on the lineup, especially if their opinions differ from those of the others

Expert moderation is rare

The quality of the moderation is even more important than the perspectives of the panelists. Without good moderation, you will not hear a well balanced conversation among very intelligent people. But good moderation is hard to find. It takes practice to know how to expertly pivot a conversation when it goes off track, or how to engage panelists equally.

In most panels we attend, the moderator usually tries to give equal time to the panelists, directing each and every question to each panelist. This produces a formulaic, time-wasting and inefficient format where people find themselves speaking on a topic they don’t care or have any particular insight about, racking their brain to find an answer other than the dreaded “yes, I agree with what everybody else said”.

So, if panels are so bad, why are they so pervasive?

Panels are pervasive for various reasons:

  • For one, it’s easier to convince high-profile busy people to take part in a panel than to laboriously prepare a presentation. So, if you want to secure heavy-hitters for your event, it’s just a safer choice to invite them for a panel.
    Also, many people are just not practiced in preparing and giving talks and having the stage all on their own; a panel gives them a way to share the stage and to avoid having to mull in advance over what they’d like to say.
  • Second, panels are a way to put five people on stage, in the same amount of time as you could feature only one full-length talk. Thus, it’s more tempting for an organizer to feature everyone in a panel than make difficult programming choices.
  • Finally, it’s “just the way things are done”. Events just include panels because, well, because events just include panels. There is often no rhyme and reason. You slot the panel, schedule the participants and find a moderator, and let them figure it out.

If not panels, then what?

So, if panels are so detrimental to event programming, what do we suggest instead? First, we think that the classic talk format should really be the default for most events. In a talk, the speaker has to prepare in advance to produce insights in a short amount of time. If your plan was to feature four panelists over a 40-minute panel, just ask each of them for a 10-minute talk. If two of them say “we’d really rather do a panel”, you can have them on a 20-minute panel, but still give the two participants who are willing to put in the work the opportunity to give a thoughtful talk.

If there is a high-profile participant who is very busy (or if you’re just worried they’ll decline to give a talk), invite them for a fireside chat with an interviewer who knows and appreciates them or their work. A one-on-one format with a knowledgeable interviewer is a great way to extract from that person the insights they are uniquely able to give, without forcing them to prepare.

Some participants just don’t want to give a talk: they might not have done it before, or they might think they’re bad at it. For them, a panel is a low-stress low-expectations way to participate. We won’t argue with the fact that it’s low-expectations: that’s the exact point of this blog post. But that’s a bug, not a feature. Do encourage them to plan a short talk, such as a lightning talk with a small audience. (Here is a good guide for preparing tech talks.) We think that preparing and giving a talk is an exceptional way to provide value. But if someone adamantly refuses to prepare a talk, then, like before, they can be featured in a fireside chat. If all the participants refuse to prepare talks, then you can feature them in a panel (or re-evaluate your choice of participants :).

We won’t discuss here the more “interactive” formats such as discussion circles, workshops, roundtables, etc. . They are great, but they are not natural alternatives to panels.

Are panels ever the right choice?

There are some unique situations where panels make a lot of sense. Here are a couple such situations:

  • When the participants know each other in advance, and have well-formulated disagreements with one another. If two people, or a group, have been arguing something for 20 hours already, then they’re probably prepared to give a riveting 30-minute version of that argument, on stage.
  • If the background for the panel was already covered in the program. For example, if the program already includes a session with 3–4 talks that review a certain topic in depth from multiple angles, then it’s logical to include a short panel where these speakers discuss the topic. They’ve already had time to present their views individually, and now is the time for an interactive discussion. But be sure to find a skilled moderator!

We hope you have found these suggestions useful and we look forward to hearing more perennial-panelists deliver talks on stage!

Other Reading. Here is a blog post by Reid Hoffman on the same topic. If you do run a panel, here are some great actionable suggestions for you. And Brad Feld and Fred Wilson explore their issues with panels.

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