Why to Avoid Panel Sessions at Conferences

October 15, 2017

Avoid Panel Sessions

I’ve been to a lot of conferences this year, marketing and otherwise. I’ve been from Cleveland to Cannes and points in between to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, SiriusDecisions Summit, Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Content Marketing World, Advertising Week, and MarketingProfs B2B Forum.

My team and I have learned a lot at these conferences. We’ve kept tabs on how artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other trends are poised to transform marketing.

And here’s one more critical lesson we’ve learned: Skip the panel discussions.

Seriously.

Panels are where genuine discussion and true learning go to die. Panels are where event organizers cram in representatives from brands they want to be at their conferences. Putting these folks on panels may contribute to filling seats and selling tickets, but I argue that panels typically don’t contribute to the audience learning anything.

So many panels go off the rails from the get-go. The panelists don’t have a true discussion. They talk past each other, angling to get in their talking points and maybe even a brief, thinly disguised sales pitch.

And here’s another sad truth about panels: Panelists can wing it. Panelists don’t need to be prepared beyond having stock answers ready to fairly obvious questions, because two or three other panelists will be there to bail them out. Panelists can hide in plain sight, right there on stage.

Contrast the typical dynamic of a panel, where panelists have very little skin in the game, with a conference session presented by a single thought leader. A lone presenter has nothing but her PowerPoint slides to bail her out. In each session she does, a lone presenter’s reputation is on the line, and she better have a talk that’s going to a) entertain the audience, b) deliver some actionable takeaways, or c) preferably both.

When given the choice between a panel of mismatched executives discussing a topic off the cuff and a presentation delivered by a single, focused thought leader, I’ll choose the latter every time.

Ironically, it was a recent panel I saw — one that was surprisingly excellent — that solidified my negative opinions of panels in general. This enlightening panel, “The Currency of Trust,” took place at Advertising Week New York in late September.

What separated this panel from the also-rans was that one of the panelists, Ben Boyd, President-Practices/Sectors, Edelman, kicked off the session with several-minute presentation that examined findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer. In itself, Boyd’s presentation, which demonstrated the declining lack of trust Americans have in institutions such as government, corporations, and the media, made attending the panel worthwhile. As lone presenters tend to do, Boyd came armed with some actionable takeaways for the audience.

The data from Edelman’s Trust Barometer also helped ensure that other members of the panel (American Express’ Elizabeth Rutledge, Publicis Groupe’s Rishad Tobaccowala, and LinkedIn’s Penry Price) had a truth north for the discussion that followed.

These panelists had clearly prepared ahead of time, and all left the audience with useful takeaways on how marketers can operate in a post-trust world. For instance, Rutledge counseled that marketers should be customer-centric more than ever in the post-trust society, and Tobbacowala said that this new world required vigilant transparency and openness from corporations.       

So despite this positive experience with a panel, here’s my advice for the next time you’re at a conference: Avoid the panels.

And don’t take my word for it. I recently asked Joe Pulizzi, Founder, Content Marketing Institute, why his conference, Content Marketing World, was extremely light on panels.

“It’s on purpose,” Pulizzi said. “Panels consistently score lower than stand-alone sessions. Our audience is looking for meaty, how-to presentations, which is almost impossible to do with a panel.”

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Photo: TopRank Marketing 

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