Five Great Ways to Create a Terrible Panel Discussion

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Why this Element of So Many Meetings is So Often a Bore -- and How You Can Avoid this Fate at Your Next Conference

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This list may sound glib, but it represents traps that even the best-prepared event can fall into.

"Who hasn't been to a panel discussion -- and who hasn't been bored by one, even when it's about a great topic?" asks Joan Greco, President of Good Question Consulting. Drawing on her 20+ years creating "talking head" programs for PBS and for businesses, Greco (sarcastically) offers these top five ways to turn a potentially great conversation into a deadly bore:

"1. Don’t Have a Discussion At All – So what if it says “Discussion” in the title? Most things that call themselves panel discussions have little or no interaction among panelists, so why should yours be any different? Have each panelist give a presentation in isolation, followed by each answering a few questions from the moderator. Make sure you don’t provide opportunities for panelists to ask each other questions, attempt to convince each other on particular issues, or work through a problem together. An actual conversation might break out."

"2. Frustrate Your Panelists – Once you’ve decided to use serial presentations rather than conversation, ask each panelist to address a broad issue, rather than a sharply focused question, in their presentation — then don’t give them enough time to do it. Reduce the alloted time even more during the event because things are running behind schedule. Then cut each panelist off abruptly when their time runs out."

"Bonus points for asking follow-up questions that show a lack of understanding of, or research on, the panelist’s work."

"3. Frustrate Your Audience – Pay no attention to (or never bother to find out) what your audience hopes to learn from the event. Present obvious introductory material to an insider audience, or present narrow jargon-filled material to an outsider audience. Don’t be crystal clear in your goals while producing or promoting the event — try to present “something for everyone” instead."

"4. Avoid Controversy – Don’t seek out panelists with opposing views. Don’t push them with hard questions. Don’t say out loud what everyone is thinking but afraid to raise."

"5. Make the Moderator the Star of the Show – Isolate the moderator from the panelists in a way that prevents intimacy. Encourage him or her to ask long questions designed primarily to show off the moderator’s knowledge of and opinions on the issues. Don’t make the moderator listen carefully to each panelist and respond accordingly — just go to the next prepared question instead."

"And, if you aim to create the perfect storm of dull discussions," Greco adds, "Don't forget to begin with a lengthy reading of every panelist's bio, and end with a question-and-answer session monopolized by a couple of long-winded audience members."

"This list may sound glib," Greco concludes, "but it represents traps that even the best-prepared event can sometimes fall into. Watch out for them and you'll be on the way to a dialogue that really gets people talking."

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Joan Greco
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