Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why Most Panel Discussions Are A Bad Choice for Education Content

I am continuously amazed at how we, as event professionals, keep trying to do the same things (that repeatedly don’t work) over and over, expecting a different result?!?  Some people would (and do) call that insanity!

I am as guilty of this mistake as the next person, as I have made my share of ‘repeat errors.’  This past week I was witness of, and party to one such blunder,  at the PCMA Education Conference.  For context I was the Conference Co-Chair (along with Bob Hancock)  So, I accept ownership of the programming decision, which led to the less than positive experience I am about to share with you.

First some great news …  Based upon the feedback received the conference was very successful overall.  The one thorn in an otherwise very rosy experience was Tuesday afternoon’s General Session, an Industry Panel Discussion. All I can say is “What were we thinking?”

Up until this event occurred the conference energy level and enthusiasm had been very high.  That all changed in a matter of minutes, as this session put nearly the entire audience (myself included) to sleep. The experience was especially painful for our remote/virtual attendees.

So why was it a mistake to do a panel discussion?  What went wrong?  What could have been done differently?  Let’s take an objective look at these questions.

The “Pain Points”

Scheduling — we scheduled this panel discussion as the last session for Day Three of the conference.  Everyone was tired, from two nights of late night wining and dining, and two intense days of program content.  That morning we featured a fantastic speaker, Scott Koslosky, who was both engaging and entertaining.  We may have been better served to flip flop (reverse) the scheduling of these two general sessions.

Poor Topic Choice — Our topic for the panel was “The New Normal of Business.” Several months ago this was a hot topic, but it has been addressed repeatedly, at numerous conferences this year, and now has become an overused cliche.  We received many comments from attendees expressing their disdain with this topic.

Why Most Panel Discussions Fail

Brain RulesTalking Heads — Seemingly, most panel discussions fall short of their intended impact for one simple fact … they don’t engage audiences.  Yes, there are usually sporadic opportunities for the audience to ask questions, or share comments.  However most of the time, during the session, is spent with attendees quietly listening to panel members share their thoughts. That is not energizing.

Not Optimal Learning Conditions — This is the core problem with panel discussions.  The human brain is not wired to sit quietly for long periods of time, without some stimuli.  So, in the absence of stimuli, the brain shuts down and people become disengaged.  A really good book on this subject is called “Brain Rules” by Dr. John Medina.  I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the brain and its relationship to learning concepts.

For the record this panel was comprised of very credible, knowledgeable business people, with strong experience.  They were led by a moderator with a proven track record in that role.  I do not blame them one bit for this situation.  They delivered what we asked them to, and that was the real mistake.  Nuff Said!

Question:  Have you encountered a situation where a panel discussion was highly effective?  What, in your opinion, made that situation work?  If you attended the session referenced in this article, how did it resonate with you?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Woodruff June 21, 2010 at 7:43 am

Most panel discussions are, by and large, a waste of time. You cannot get in-depth with so many egos to manage and perspectives to weave together. The exception – smaller groups where you’re dealing with tangible issues/problems, with the audience and panel interacting collaboratively. THAT can be rich.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Hi Steve,

Thanks for contributing to this conversation.

You hit it on the head … if you can make a panel collaborative by involving the audience more deeply then the session can prosper.

Great nugget of wisdom!



Keith Johnston June 21, 2010 at 9:56 am

Critiquing your own creation is never an easy thing to do and you should be commended for taking the time to reflect on the session and the issues that you are now aware of. Hindsight is 20/20 and you make some great points that it was not a question of the panelists, it was a question of timing (both in content and placement within the conference).

I have heard nothing but great reviews from the conference (sorry I was not able to attend). As a side note, since having had a little time to decompress, what would have been a better choice for the final session?


Michael M McCurry CMP June 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Hey Keith,

I am very open and receptive towards constructive thinking as it relates to experiences. I am well aware that I am going to make mistakes. With this conference there were a number of calculated risks we took to try new things and mix it up a bit.

We didn’t get it exactly right with this panel, but it was not a complete disaster, as John Potterton pointed out, there were some takeaways.

The biggest challenge, for me, is we did not get engage our attendees with this session. That is the real takeaway. Factors I’ve already mentioned (timing and topic) played into that, but had we taken a slightly different approach to the panel it could have worked reasonably well.

Below, Jeff Hurt outlined a couple of ideas that resonate with me.

Thanks for contributing to this conversation Keith!



Emilie Barta June 21, 2010 at 5:10 pm

The way to make a panel work? Turn it into a think tank where you have several thought leaders sharing their perspective to see a variety of solutions to the topic that you are discussing. Engage the audience by continuously allowing them to “chime in” with their opinions and ask questions. Have a professional host/moderator who can keep the conversation moving forward, build upon the momentum throughout the discussion, and ensure that many voices are heard. Interact with the virtual audience by giving their comments and questions a voice. And most of all…make sure it is a conversation/discussion and not a slew of commentators. Then it will work!


Michael M McCurry CMP June 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Hi Emilie,

I love the think tank idea. The key, as you pointed out is to continuously engage the audience and encourage them to chime in with comments, as well as questions.

Great comments and yes avoiding the “commentator” syndrome is key!

Thanks for contributing.



Midori Connolly June 21, 2010 at 5:36 pm

First of all Mike, don’t be so hard on yourself. I did hear from a few people that luckily the panelists were good enough that they were able to share some really valuable experiences with the crow. And hindsight is ever so clear… :-)

Interestingly enough, the event I’m producing for the Fall educational program at the PCMA New York chapter is a panel format – and includes a webcast to a remote audience as well as two-way communication with the Mexico City chapter. So, I will be working very closely with the moderator on some tactics to get conversation flowing between the physical audience and both the webcast as well as telepresence audience. I will also work with them to incorporate two live poll questions. From the results of the poll, I will encourage the panelists to actually structure conversation around the findings of these questions so there is some value to the participation of all audience members.

It should be fun but with your brains and brawn for hybrid meetings, I certainly wish I had you on the team :-)

Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl


Michael M McCurry CMP June 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Hi Midori,

I am not really not being hard on myself, just owning the situation. There is a very narrow window through which panels can be effective and we did not set it up correctly.

I did hear good comments as well, from some people on some of the discussion, so no, it was not a total loss, by any means. And, we had some really talented people on the stage, of course.

I love your idea about using live polls as a way to facilitate audience engagement.

Sounds like you are on a good path with the NYC event. Good luck, and thanks for contributing!



Dave Lutz June 22, 2010 at 5:17 am

Mike, I’m tossing back and forth on this one. On one hand, I agree with you. Most panels are assembled by trying to achieve balance. Lets get 2 planners (1 big meetings, 1 small), a hotelier, CVB and 3rd party up there so everyone is represented. Make sure you don’t have too many males or females and not too many grey hairs. The topic and view point gets so watered down, that it’s hard to really dig into the major issues.

Would the session have been better in the AM? Maybe, but doubt that it would have made much of a diff…other than ending on a high note with Klososky.

If you have the right moderator and panelists up there and you try not to boil the ocean and cover too much stuff, I do believe you can hit a home run by engaging the audience and having a meaningful session. They need to be up to the challenge of beating the panel paradigm, really knowing the audience, and getting the content to a level where it challenges the audience a bit. It can be done successfully! Just needs lots of prep and deep understanding of the audience’s expertise.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 22, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Hi Dave,

Thanks for stopping by McCurry’s Corner.

Great point you made about “challenging” the audience.

Thanks for your comments!



Scott Gould July 9, 2010 at 5:44 am

Dave – this comment helped me a lot. FOCUS is the key.


Billy Kirsch June 22, 2010 at 9:26 am

As a performer the first thing I think about is engagement and interaction. And the second thing I think about is topic! Topic has to be interesting to bring people in, but presentation is so important. A panel can work, if it’s led by an engaging presenter and if it keeps moving and interacting with audience.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 22, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Hi Billy,

you are so right, it is about engagement and interaction. It’s also about stimulating the brain and getting it fired up.

The main thing to remember with a panel is to find a way to get the audience involved immediately. The longer you wait, the less engaged they become.

Thanks for contributing and it was great meeting you in Montreal!



Heidi Thorne June 22, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I have been to many panel discussions, some very good, others miserable. The key to successful panels is balance. I’ve been to many where you might as well have called the one panelist the speaker. I also agree that a shorter session for panels is preferred.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

Hi Heidi,

I agree with you, balance is key in a panel scenario.

There needs to be a lot of interaction in order to sustain energy in the room.

Thanks for contributing,



John Potterton June 23, 2010 at 8:57 am

I have to say Emile Barta’s comments about the “formula” for making a panel work is in fact the formula that I observed was utilized for this panel. I also agree with Dave Lutz – the time of day for this panel is not that significant.

Mike, while I respect your opinion and your desire to “own the situation”, from my perspective I have to disagree with your assesment of this session. It might not have had the “energy” of a single person presenter like a Jamie Clark or Scott Klososky, but there was quality content delivered, the audience had lots of opportunities to participate, the panelists delivered great information and the moderator did her job well of moving the conversation and staying on track. If I had to do this over again, the one adjustment I would make is to shorten the opening comments made by our first panelist. What she said was terrific, I just think if we started with a shorter opening statement we would have more readily captured the audience’s attention. The rest of the session flowed nicely, at least I thought so. I would encourage you to go to PCMA’s Online Learning Center later this week to revisit the session (free for Education Conference attendees and $25 for all others). Perhaps reviewing it on a computer at your convenience will help you see this session with a new lense. There really were some great takeways in this session.

A suggestion for panels that I have seen work successfully is to stir it up a bit with controversy – a statement or subject that would generate a reaction or cause some disagreement. When done appropriately, it can be very impactful and really get the audience to pay attention and stay involved.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 23, 2010 at 11:21 am

Hi John,

Thanks so much for commenting on this blog. Your opinion and thoughts are much appreciated!

Many of the comments I made in this post are based upon direct feedback I received (and continue to receive) from attendees, both remote and face2face. While there were certainly some takeaways from this session, in my opinion, as well as many others, it was not very engaging.

I will be interested to see the evaluation results from PCMA Survey, as that may give us more data on what the consistent perception of this session was.

I like your idea of “stirring it up a bit with controversy.” I look forward to seeing that occur in a future session. Also, your point about the first panelist is well taken.

I think our choice of topics was a mistake, as I’ve already stated, and I was the person that supported that choice, so that’s where I accept ownership, as Co-chair. I look at these situations as learning lessons, nothing more.

We all have the same ultimate goal of delivering the best possible conference experience to our members … that is what we all want! I have served, as you know on panels myself, with you, and we have made those experiences work very positively. There is just a delicate balance to maintain between providing content and engaging audiences and making the experience interactive.

I know we will do better in the future!

Thanks for contributing John, to this blog, and for providing leadership to the programming of the Education Conference… it really was an outstanding experience!



Jeff Hurt June 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm


I think you know I’m with you on this one. Let me stir the hornet’s nest a little more.

I for one highly disliked the panel session in Montreal and it was the weakest point of the conference for me. The panelist are all good people. The moderator was ok.

Yet, it was a major disappointment because the audience was not involved in discussion with each other. Typically, when there is a panel on a conference program, I bail. The majority of them are time wastes where four or six people drone on for an hour to ninety minutes. I despise them as much as listening to a professor read his research to an audience.

Here’s my rub…panels are usually dialogues between each other with some question from the audience. The challenge with panel and open audience questions like Emile, Dave and John propose is that only a few people in the audience get to ask questions.

The U.S. Department of Education has research that shows that panels are not effective for learning because attendees are not involved with active discussion. Most conference organizers think that if they open the panel for audience questions then they have engaged the audience. WRONG! They’ve only engaged the attendees that got to ask a question and at the most that might be ten people. What about the other 90 in a session of 100 that had different questions?

When are we going to move away from the idea that listening is the best way to transfer information and education? It is not! The people who learn the most from panels are the panelist and the moderators. THAT’s IT. One of Malcolm Knowes adult learning principles is that the depth of our learning depends upon the depth of our active engagement. Listening is passive engagement. Listening to panels is passive engagement.

Here’s the way to make the panel work….Give the panelist an issue and each panelist gets a few minutes to talk about their views. Then the moderator turns to the audience and says, “Ok turn to your neighbor and talk about the panelist’s views with each other for the next four minutes.” Then you’ve allowed the attendees to internalize, deconstruct and discuss with each other the issue. That’s true engagement and that has the most education ROI.

BTW, I’m going to disagree with Dave and John that the time of day impacts the presentation. It 100% does. There is plenty of education research from folks like Erick Jensen, Howard Gardner, Dunn & Dunn and others that the time of day impacts learning and retention.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Wow, Jeff, you certainly raised some great points here and some valid concerns.

I love your closing ideas to make a panel work. I am going to use that concept with the next event I participate in as a panel moderator. Thanks for sharing that!

I love the conversation this has generated. So many takeaways and perspectives.

The key phrase in all this is “active discussion.” Listening for 60 minutes does not fit that mold. Even listening for 45 minutes and then conversing for 15 does not work.

I firmly believe if we had started the day with this panel, we may have gotten more energy out of it, although it still had the challenges I’ve (and others) have identified.

Thanks so much for your perspective and for your thoughts on the subject Jeff.



Midori Connolly June 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm

This makes me think of a really successful panel I just saw at the InfoComm show two weeks ago (Infocomm is the industry association for Audiovisual education). The way this works is that we find a handful of planners and producers who represent the planner side of the industry. We then field questions from our members ahead of time, as well as come up with great, probing questions.
I’m not kidding when I say the audience is on the edge of their seats, furiously scribbling notes about what the panelists have to say. Additionally, there is a microphone available for audience members to approach and ask questions at any time.
So, it’s not only the time of day (which I concur is *totally* a weighing factor), but the content of the discussion. For us, it was like a peek inside of the head of our clients , like we got to read their diary and learn their secrets.
To build on Jeff’s comments, I would have LOVED a follow-up session that was like a hands-on sales workshop where we could build off of what was just discussed and do some role-playing or custom plan-building. Instead we drink at a reception, a very popular activity for the AV crowd 😉 So, at least we had some white space to chat about what was just discussed and share opinions and ideas. I think that if you can’t offer white space, there should be some type of workshop that builds from the keynote or panel.
Just another $.02 from the AVGirl…


Michael M McCurry CMP June 24, 2010 at 7:50 am

Hi Midori,

Great example of getting audience engaged in the session. This type of stuff will make a panel work.

Thanks for sharing this information and for contributing further to this discussion.



Jay Smethurst June 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Great conversation here! While I’ve seen more and less interesting panels, my experience in general is that they are a bit of a compromise from the get-go. It has often seemed that in a panel format, the organizers want to hear from each of these people, but we don’t want to hear from them SO much that we give them a whole hour to speak. :-)

If the purpose is to hear the content from these folks, then I would challenge them each to give a 10-15 minute talk in a TED-like or Pecha Kucha format, and skip the alleged interaction among the panel. If the purpose is to hear the interaction, then I would pose a design challenge to the panel, and then watch as this team of experts worked through a process of solving a problem together – that gives the audience the opportunity to see their expertise “in action”. A rip-roaring debate over a hot topic can provide entertainment, but it has to include excellent debaters in order to be educational for the audience.

The concept I like best is Jeff’s idea of using the panelists to provide some new context or perspective, and then challenging the audience to engage in a design challenge themselves. In an ideal world, attendees would bring real-world challenges into the session, and then each table in the audience would be required to design a solution to one of their challenges based on the perspectives presented by the panelists. New context + real world application yields much more powerful learning and retention (and – gasp – application!) than listening to the yammering heads.

Mike, I offer these comments knowing full well that you put on a fantastic event. Jeff’s comments tipped off a train of thought that seemed worth sharing!



Michael M McCurry CMP June 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

Hi Jay, long time no talk.

Love the idea of problem solving together as a panel, on the fly, or even better yet, getting the audience involved in doing the same thing.

Great conversation going — thanks for sharing.



Paul Salinger June 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Lots of good points and thoughts here, and this is a good discussion to have, especially for those of us that do content design or meeting architecture for events, or that sit on Program Committees.

No need to re-articulate some of the challenges and potential solutions here, but one point worth raising, it seems to me, is that if you are in a situation where it is inevitable (and, ideally that might be never), where a panel is desired or the only option for some reason, one place to look for improvement might be in the actual moderation of the panel.

More often than not I find that the moderator is the weak part of the panel. I often see panels where a question is posed (that might actually be a good question), and for some reason everyone on the panel is asked to answer it. This giving of equal time to answer the same question leads to less time for actual content (since many times the answers are a re-statement of another panelist), and leave less time for thoughtful follow-up or thoughtful questions from the audience.

I think we, as content designers, owe it to our audiences, as well as the people we have asked to serve on a panel, to both choose a good moderator, one who knows content enough to ask interesting follow-up questions to draw out more interesting content and can offer either an audience perspective (ask the questions the audience probably wants to ask) or even their own perspective that might be at odds with the panel, but adds to the discussion.

This means that a good moderator must be briefed, and then must be given some ownership and responsibility to engage the audience in both an entertaining and enlightening way, much like a good single presenter would. (S)he must be prepared to brief panelists and develop the content in away as to draw out the best content and learning for the audience (and not just feed the egos of the panelists).

All of that being said, I agree with many of the points here and would do everything I could to influence not using panels, except in rare circumstances, when designing content for an event or conference.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 24, 2010 at 7:55 am

Hi Paul,

As you correctly point out, an essential element for there to even be a possibility of a panel to work, is the moderator. A weak moderator spells disaster for the session.

The moderator not only keeps the session on track but also can get the audience engaged by asking questions, or making comments that are intended to portray the audience point of view.

Thanks for your contributions to this discussion.

Much appreciated!



Joan Eisenstodt June 24, 2010 at 11:54 am

Mike et al,
Thanks for this conversation.

It was painful to experience, virtually, and I gather, from those who were there w/ whom I was texting. It would have helped if even one of those speaking had sat up, smiled, laughed, done any comments w/ energy! PASSION fuels more passion. Everything sounded like a recitation of facts — a website link w/ bullet points would have sufficed.

I didn’t see the very start — did Nancy ask the audience to discuss among themselves and come up w/ some issues for the panel to address? If not, that would have helped — to have the session be interactive, to be spontaneous, to have some surprises. From what one of the posts here said, and from my knowledge of “the sages on the stage”, they know their stuff and could have improv-ed it all.

Wondered if Nancy had been in the audience and/or asking provocative questions if this might have had more energy. Ifshe was on the stage because it was streamed, it would have been ok not to see her (tho’ it did make me happy to see a friend I’ve not seen in some time!) –and just to hear her. The ideas were the impt. part.

Wondered too if they had moved to a few subject areas around “new normal”, used some visuals — even started w/ pecha kucha – if it woulda been more interesting.

As for my (aural/relationship) preferred learning style, if I see the word panel AND a room set w/ a stage and head table far from the adience, I am likely to not even step foot in the room.


Michael M McCurry CMP June 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Hi Joan,

Your comments certainly resonate with me. As you know I was monitoring tweets during this, and all other sessions, and the pain from the remote audience was very clear.

You are so right that passion breeds passion, and that energy was not in the room. Your ideas to engage the audience certainly make a lot of sense, as do many of the other suggestions made in this conversation.

We can take the information from this string of comments and use it wisely for the future. I know that my next panel adventure will include some of the great approaches and ideas expressed in this dialogue.

Thanks so much for contributing.



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