COMMENTARY

What to avoid when planning panels at events like SXSW

The four concepts can help make a better panel for your audience

Posted June 28th, 2016

Story highlights
  • One-sided discussions limit perspective in a group panel.
  • Panels that are sponsored by a company should make that disclosure front and center for attendees.
  • Panels that don't leave room for Q&A or audience participation can leave attendees cold.

It’s painful to sit through a bad panel at a conference. 

If you attend these kinds of educational gatherings, you know that the quality of the speakers can make a panel. 

In the past few years of South by Southwest, I’ve taken note of some of the issues that keep popping up over and over. Let’s call them the four “D”s of what a good panel should have, the kinds of things to keep in mind if you're submitting one to the SXSW Panel Picker, which launches today.

Addie Broyles / AMERICAN-STATESMANChris Miller, left, of Ben & Jerry’s, and Cathleen Enright, of the Council for Biotechnology Information, present a panel on GMO labeling at South by Southwest Interactive 2015.

Disclosure: The first major disclosure train wreck that I witnessed was during South by Southwest Eco in 2014, when Monsanto sponsored several panels and events, but without clear indication of the financial support, including the travel costs of many panelists. Like sponsored content on a blog, sponsored panels need to be identified as such so that moderators can force tough conversations even with the stacked deck. We saw a slightly improved version of this at last year’s South by Southwest, when Washington Post reporter Tamar Haspel wasn’t afraid to ask challenging questions to Chris Miller, social mission activism manager at Ben & Jerry’s, and Cathleen Enright, the executive director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, whose members fund a website called GMO Answers, which organized the session. 

Diversity: Most conferences have become more diverse -- in both attendees and speakers -- in the past decade, but there’s a lack of diversity in thought that is starting to settle in. An increasing number of panels are one-sided, with several (if not all) voices coming from the same perspective, or even the same company. There are exceptions where it makes sense to have more than one person from a company on a panel, but those people should have different roles or insights with whatever they are talking about. 

Two panels that grated on my nerves this year were on the SouthBites schedule at the Driskill Hotel: “Partners for Successful On-Demand Grocery Delivery,” an unmoderated session from two people, one from Whole Foods and another from Instacart, who have a close business relationship. Without a third party asking questions to prompt them outside of their established talking points, the conversation wasn’t as relevant to an audience that wanted more than polished corporate chatter. 

This happened again with an oversold session called “The Future of Grocery Shopping” that didn’t have any actual grocery professionals on it. Instead, two technologists from Chaotic Moon Studios talked about a smart grocery cart they’ve been working on for a few years.  

Discussion: It’s important for attendees at these events to develop good listening skills to respectfully hear what information the speakers want to share, but I think the interaction between the presenters and the audience is undervalued. Even without taking questions, a speaker should be able to get a sense of what the audience is really engaged with and adjust the presentation and panel discussion in response. You would think that taking audience questions would be a given, but I’ve attended plenty of sessions where Q&A didn’t happen or was truncated. 

One example included a session called “Sharenting to Equal Parenting: Modern Family Myths,” where one person, a head of consumer insights research at Facebook, walked us through 30 minutes of data in a slide show, without making an effort to interpret that information or use it to spark a bigger conversation with the audience about parenting and technology. 

With more than 20 minutes left in the hour, the presenter said she was out of time, which left dozens of us in the audience turning to each other to process some of the really interesting statistics she’d just thrown our way. Those conversations were rewarding, but I expect presenters to use all of their time to engage the room in a thought-provoking discussion that touches on many angles of the same subject. 

Dissension: Not everyone on a panel should agree. Not just about the little tiny details, but about some of the big picture concepts related to the topic at hand. Of course, big, bombastic fireworks belong up in the sky above a convention center, not in the ballrooms inside, but respectful debate is good. We need opponents to help us find and expand the edges of our thinking.

Addie Broyles is the food writer for the Austin American-Statesman and has regularly been part of the team that covers South by Southwest.

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