Why panels suck

Soon, self-driving cars will turn Highway 101 into an office park, and we’ll all keep working right through rush hour. But where is the technology that will liberate us from a productivity killer that’s nearly as lethal as the morning commute?

At thousands of conferences every year, millions of panel sessions consume billions of man-hours of attention. And for what? A panel is an algorithm that makes three to six leaders in a given field sound dull.

I’m not the first person to say this. Or even the second.

By now, there have probably even been some panels on why panels suck. And yet panels remain an entrenched part of the conference experience – which is unfortunate because conferences are so critical for professional development.

In The Startup of You and The Alliance, I write about how personal networks have replaced the company as the main way that people advance their careers now. Instead of climbing the career ladder in a single organization, professionals jump from opportunity to opportunity. The personal networks they develop play a major role in how successfully they navigate this journey. (Personal networks also end up benefiting companies too, as individual professionals cultivate ever-widening spheres of intelligence and reciprocity that increase their effectiveness as employees.)

One key way to develop the kinds of relationships that lead to strong networks is to position yourself at the hubs of where information flows. Industry conferences are great places to do this.

Anyone starting out in a new industry should go to as many major conferences as they can manage. But not for the panels or even the keynotes. For many people, the primary draw of conferences is everything that happens in between the official business.

My friend and fellow venture capitalist David Hornik even established an annual gathering in 2007 called The Lobby where all of the components that typically define traditional conferences were cut in favor of more time for free-form networking. "In a great conference, the conversation in the lobby is the content," he explained in his introductory invitation.

At most conferences, however, panels persist as a key organizing element. And obviously they have their virtues. In fact, from a conference organizers’ perspective, panels make a lot of sense. Putting multiple people on the same stage increases the chances of multiple points of view and a broader range of content – at least in theory. Panels also help attract larger audiences, because each panel participant will likely appeal to different sets of conference-goers and bring their own constituencies. Finally, they divide responsibilities in a way that participants typically welcome. While an appearance on a panel means you won’t have as much time in the spotlight as you would if giving a speech, it also means you won’t have to spend much time – or really any time – preparing.

For conference organizers, panels represent an undemanding ask. For participants, they’re a way to put themselves in the middle of the action without needing to invest significant amounts of prep time. Unfortunately, this usually ends up creating a "co-owners are no owners" dynamic. When responsibility gets so distributed, no one feels obligated to carry the show themselves. Even moderators may feel comfortable just winging it.

But this is only the start of a panel’s structural problems. Because there are so many people to introduce, introductions take too long. Because panelists know they’ll only have limited time to speak, they tend to focus on clear and simple messages that will resonate with the broadest number of people. The result is that you get one person giving you an overly simplistic take on the subject at hand. And then the process repeats itself multiple times! Instead of going deeper or providing more nuance, the panel format ensures shallowness.

Even worse, this shallow discourse manifests as polite groupthink. After all, panelists attend conferences for the same reasons that attendees do – they want to make connections and build relationships. So panels end up heavy on positivity and agreement, and light on the sort of discourse which, through contrasting opinions and debate, could potentially be more illuminating.

In this context, it’s just safer to be upbeat and agreeable than it is to be negative or contrarian. Even competitors behave in overly diplomatic fashion. And, unfortunately, any parties whose disregard for each other is strong enough to produce candor aren’t likely to agree to appear on the same panel!

For all these reasons, most panels aren’t very instructive unless they’re on a subject you know absolutely nothing about. And while I do sometimes participate in panels, I generally do so only as a favor to a friend.

As both a participant and as a member of the audience, I much prefer fireside chats – i.e., a dialogue between two people who both have clear-cut roles to play. The interviewer is there to ask relevant and perceptive questions. The correspondent knows the audience is expecting in-depth answers.

With the fireside format, both parties feel accountable for their role in the conversation –so they invest an appropriate amount of time in preparing. Since there are only two people involved, there’s also much less repetition. Ideas can be explored with more nuance, and at the same time, the conversation can go in more directions, because there aren’t five people waiting for their turn at bat on Question X.

While I believe that fireside chats have significant advantages over panels, this doesn’t mean that panels can’t be improved. The key to making them better is to make them more structured – to essentially turn them into semi-formal debates:

  • Participants should be given specific and unique questions – eliminating repetitive answers.
  • They should be discouraged from chiming in when others answer unless they have an opposing or contrasting point to raise.
  • At the close, the audience should vote on who they found most persuasive with a show of hands.

The sense of competition this introduces would probably make it harder to attract panelists. But it would also raise the stakes enough to ensure that those who do participate are sufficiently invested in the endeavor. Even with these changes, I’d still choose a fireside chat over a panel. But at least panels would suck somewhat less.

Agree? Disagree? After this solo diatribe, I’d like to hear what the other panelists think!