Why Panels Suck And My New Approach To Panels

I’ve been getting at least one invitation a day to speak on at a conference or on a panel. My general rule is to only say yes when it intersects with my travel, if it is for an organization I’m already involved in or a person I want to support, or if it’s in a place I’m interested in visiting. When invited, I typically end up getting asked to give a keynote, be interviewed on stage, or be part of a panel. I enjoy the first two and hate the last one.

Fred Wilson and I were both on an email thread today from a good friend of ours asking us to be on a panel with him at an event in November. Based on my rules above, I said “yes, if it’s really important to you.” Fred had a better answer:

“i have a no panels rule.Β 
i am trying like hell to enforce it.Β 
panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”

Fred is so correct on this. Whenever I’m in the audience listening to a panel, I’m almost always bored. Every now and then someone on the panel captivates me, but the vast majority are dull, vapid, generic, stupid, non-controversial, politically correct, or just plain boring. And a conference of panels? “E#kl;asdfpoi#0c90k;@$Q”.

When I give a keynote, I usually do a 15 minute rant on whatever topic I think is relevant to the audience and then do Q&A for whatever my allotted time is. I’ve generally stopped “telling my story” since I find myself incredibly boring to listen to when I’m recounting my history. Every now and then I fall into this trap of an extended introduction and always am annoyed with myself. Whenever I do this (and I did it a few weeks ago in front a class of undergrads) I hit myself in the forehead afterwards and say out loud “don’t do that again.”

I’ve never been a particularly obedient panelist. I’ve been told numerous times that my body language gives away my response to whomever is talking, especially if I don’t agree with them or think what they are saying is wrong. While I try to let people finish their thoughts, I’m not bashful about cutting in and I’d guess that I usually end up taking more than my calculated ratio of air time (e.g. if four panelist, I talk more than 25% of the time.)

While I’m not going to adopt Fred’s no panel rule, I’ve decided that I’m going to have a much higher bar going forward for agreeing to be on panels. And, when I do, the panel inviter should beware that I’m going to be even more assertive about my perspective, especially if I’m bored while sitting on the panel. Maybe that’ll filter out all the panel inviters that want a nice peaceful panel.

And – if you are a conference organizer, consider eliminating the panels altogether. As Fred says, “panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”

  • The panel discussions I’ve watched online that I’ve most enjoyed are when there’s a difference of opinion, and some discussion breaks out from that. It’s a great way not only to learn some nuances as to why they have their views, but also to learn how a potential investor treats other people; I honestly don’t want to align myself or marry an unkind disrespectful douchebag as an investor.. so I’m not sure eliminating ways of seeing interactions when under pressure is the answer.

    I did like the format that Fred and Ben Horowitz used with the ‘debate’ on lean versus fat startups though.

  • Schuyler

    I usually hit the snooze button on interviews/panels/etc for two main reasons: 1) I rarely learn anything revolutionary 2) It’s not entertaining. I appreciate a little showmanship, but somehow am serially disappointed. That’s why I make one thing clear before I participate in any interview/panel- I will be blunt and ask uncomfortable questions. When you cut through the polite chit chat and get a candid perspective, that’s worth it’s weight in gold.

  • Anonymous

    this is fucking fun! the title attracted my attention, and the thought was, being on a panel, one is sort of ‘forced’ to agree with others, and that’s shit! reading it confirmed the thought… but never thought it’s boring, maybe because not being on many…

  • Morey Bean

    As an organizer I’ll try not to put panels together; sure enough you rarely get a good moderator willing to get a spirited discussion going where the more interruptions the better… Perhaps setting up a provocative debate with a variety of viewponts by design is better, but so many organizations are so myopic that they don’t trust controversy as a healthy source for growth, particularly with bright minds thinking as they interact. Too bad… Pablum results…

  • I am not sure why @fredwilson thinks it should be eliminated. Those who want to be on it and those who want to attend and listen —
    let them be. There is a market and the buyer and seller can derive the
    value as they choose to derive.

    Not fully comprehending as to when @bfeld and @fredwilson become the “definer” of such “interaction” and “discussion” markets?

    Not understanding why both @bfeld and @fredwilson did not consider a simple question: is it true that dynamism panel
    moderator/the interviewer and its participant/s are the main drivers for the success/worth to the participating listener i.e audience?

    @fredwilson and @bfeld — Sorry! to judge — this discussion on your part is rather self-indulgent.


    • If people want to have panels, they are free to do that. I’m just putting my
      perspective out there. I suppose everything on this blog is “self-indulgent”
      because – well – they are my thoughts!

  • Brad — i agree with you, but what other forms of sharing do you recommend? Conferences/Trade Shows, etc. are built around getting information that the attendees think is important. How should it be done?

    • I think Eric Norlin has mastered the art of a conference. See
      http://www.gluecon.com and the agenda for an example. It’s almost 100% keynotes.
      The few “panels” aren’t really panels – they are mini-keynotes with multiple

  • Hear, hear. Panels suck.

    I’ve adopted an “almost no panels” rule now myself. I hate them. That said, many people have to sit on panels so I wrote a small guide on how to not suck on panels. Mostly, remember that you’re there to entertain & educate and most people are bored shitless. And while I think it’s OK to speak more than 25% on a 4 person panel, it’s not OK to be a “panel hog” or your fellow panelists won’t be happy.

    Here’s the full list if anybody is interested: http://bit.ly/b7WLfY

    re: Keynotes: I have a “don’t speak about myself” rule, too. Except when talking about the things I fucked up at my first company as a lesson. Unfortunately the list is long and can fill up many keynotes πŸ˜‰

    • Re: Panel Hog – I totally agree. I try not to be a panel hog so I keep my
      comments short, but I won’t play the “ok – now each person spend the most
      boring two minutes of the audiences lives agreeing with the previous
      panelist but trying to say something in a new way.”

      Great set of rules btw on your post!

    • Mark, that article you just shared really hits it on the head. Panels should be run like late-night talk shows. Conan O’Brien, John Stewart and Josh Topolsky (big fan of engadget show) have mastered it. Would you be on a panel if one of them was hosting?

    • Mark – even if panelists don’t suck individually, the panel still can if the moderator isn’t willing to put in the time. Like Brad’s problem with “body language” — if you’re first learning of what dumb thing another panelist is going to say during the live panel, it’s already too late. Here’s how moderators don’t have to suck: http://blog.speakergram.com/not-all-panels-have-to-suck

  • Rule 1: The quality of panels tend to be inversely proportional to the number of panelists on them.

    Rule 2: Any panel that is run by someone who knows far less about the subject than the panelists (i.e. they wouldn’t qualify to be a panelist themselves) is generally going to suck.

    Now that said, a great conversation or debate between two or 3 really smart and well informed people, to me, is going to trump a stock speech.

    So I love going to very specific types of panels.

    You and Fred talking about something interesting moderated by an equal – that’s probably going to be okay.

    • Totally agree – I differentiate a “debate” / “discussion” from a panel. A
      panel of “two” is a debate/discussion.

  • Jeanne Sullivan

    There are a LOT of reasons panels are awful…but there is a cure. I “MAKE’ my panels PREPARE! (as the speakers roll their eyes over the pain of prep).

    I think there the audience DESERVES more than a bunch of “shoot from the hip”…”I agree with Brad” comments from the other panel members. If instead, a few hours or more were spent with the panel and moderator exploring relevant and important issues related to the audience…made it funny and tell the audience things they did not know…THAT makes a panel. And…I remind the others to speak in bullet points – not a long diatribe. Everyone usually thanks me for making this kind of panel happen, including the skeptics.

  • eric norlin

    Agree re: panels — I’ve largely eliminated them from Gluecon (in the fews cases where there are multiple people in a session, we have each person present their point of view and then have a moderated discussion), and for Defrag 2011, I have a strict ZERO panels policy.

    At the end of the day, panels are far too often just a conference organizer trying to throw as many sponsors on stage as possible (with no regard for the attendee’s experience).

    • Anonymous

      Agreed that panels can be a waste of time until I watched Defrag10’s. Loved the 5 minute intro by the panelists followed by a spirited discussion. As an audience member it gave me some context. I was able to be more informed about the panelists POV and form questions or frame the content for future consideration. Preparation and a good moderator are key.

  • no @bfeld, Panels only suck when there’s no #tummler running them. The right moderator makes them work as a conversation.

    • Maybe. But there are very very few moderators that I’ve ever encountered
      that are any good.

      • Conan O’Brien, John Stewart and Josh
        Topolsky (big fan of engadget show) have mastered it. Would you be on a panel if one of them was hosting? What if someone ran event like they run their shows whenever they have mutliple people on the couch? All it takes is a rock-star panelists to keep the audience’s adrenaline pumping. If Colbert was interviewing a panel of nobody’s, would you still watch? πŸ˜‰

        • I’d probably watch Colbert interview a rock since he’s the main attraction.

  • Panel sucks. I never have panels on my events. For some unknown reason to me, participants on the panel tend to speak slower and be less eloquent and less prepared and take way to looooong to answer questions. Until I can figure out how to fix that, I won’t have panels on my events.

  • I agree Panels CAN suck, but it honestly depends on two things: “Event Type” & “The Moderator”.

    Event Type: How come talk shows are so successful? Run events like talk shows and host it like Conan O’Brien and Josh Topolsky, with enthusiasm, humor and a touch of geek. Give Fred Wilson a chance to be on the Engadget Show with 2 other rock-star VC’s, and would he pass it up? There’s just something about Q&A with individuals vs.a speech. The room comes alive and feels interactive. It’s organic, revealing, and you see a whole other side of the panelists that simply can’t be revealed in a prepared speech. I believe, for consistently monthly events, panels are just as successful and widely used.

    The Moderator: For people who can’t run a panel, it’s a disaster, but for those who
    can, it really comes off as a wealth of knowledge, and enjoyable for the
    audience Currently, for events, the format needs improvement and it starts with well informed panelists. Prepare them for the questions you ask, the audience/demographic, topic and concentrate on brevity, keeping answers lean and to the point…..oh, and if you’re going to invite somebody out to speak on a panel, give them references. Let them know “hey, I’ve done this before and my references agree that I do a great job!”

    On that note, would you be interested in doing a panel for Lean Startup Seattle? (http://www.meetup.com/Lean-Startup-Seattle/). It’d be a great excuse to get you out to Seattle and meet up with Andy Sack who is making a serious difference out here. If I get him on the panel, would you come out? It’s time somebody takes on the challenge to restore your faith in panels and get it right!

    • I know Andy extremely well. We are on the board of BigDoor together, I’m
      co-founder of TechStars (as you probably know he runs TechStars Seattle),
      and I’m an investor in Founders Co-op. I’m also in Seattle regularly.

      That said, just having Andy “on a panel” with me isn’t compelling. The panel
      topic itself has to be compelling. A debate / discussion between me and Andy
      would be interesting to me – assuming the topic was a controversial one.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m happy to say I’ve met a lot of the BigDoor team in that building while running the WordPress meetup and even more of them at Seattle2.0 awards (was cheering along with them).

        In terms of a compelling topic: “Why Startups Fail? What Can We Learn From Failed Startups?” (July 6th) for our new Lean Startup Seattle event – http://www.meetup.com/Lean-Startup-Seattle/ ! There’s a lot room for controversy when it comes to the blame-game of failed startups and even more when it comes to the Lean methodology.


        • Great topic, but I’ll be in Europe on July 6.

          • Did I say July 6th? I meant June 6th. (e-mail easier for you?)

          • Can’t do June 6th either although I land in Seattle late that night
            and am around in June 7th.

          • Hmmm….well, that’s unfortunate πŸ™ I’m honored by the fact that you even considered it. Thank you.

            On the other hand, I’m starting something big out here: http://www.meetup.com/SeattleTechMeetup/ . Born out of Mark Suster’s amazing speech at the Seattle2.0 awards (w/ a big shout-out to you btw), I’m attempting to create a meetup that is all about “Bridging the gap between large corporations and startups.” I’m already talking to Microsoft on this one.

            Any interest from you in playing a role in this? I’m aiming for June 7th. Any chance we can take this to e-mail. Keeping details under wraps for now.

          • Already got your email and responded. Happy to try to be helpful.

  • Panels usually suck because the panelists refuse to disagree with each other. Most comments start with something like “building on what Eric said…” rather than “Jane you ignorant slut!” which is WAY more interesting. My rule is that when I’m on a panel, or moderating a panel, I always try to spice things up by getting real controversial fast.

    For example, if this were a panel I’d say, “I guess MIT never taught Brad that it’s incorrect to say that your body language gives away your response to WHOMEVER is talking. You can take the man out of Texas…”

    • Well played. I’d probably get up and give you a hug since you had to
      take your computer science classes at Harvard.

  • James Mitchell

    Rather than giving a talk, I have always thought what would make more sense would be to email one or more articles you’ve written (or send them a link to them) and ask the audience to read them before the talk. At the talk, just answer questions. But the only people who can ask questions are those who have read the materials.

    • James Mitchell

      I forgot to mention — In particular, this should pertain to entrepreneurs pitching VCs. If the VC has not read the material, or asks questions that indicate he does not understand the materials (assuming they are clear and well written), then the entrpreneur knows something about the VC. If the VC is particularly diligent, he could email the entrepreneur a day before with the issues he disagreed with or issues he wants more analysis on.

      But this would only apply to formal pitches, not casual get to know you meetings, where the VC is more interested in scoping out the entrepreneur than deep drilling the idea.

  • James Mitchell

    As for debates, my experience has been that if you take any given area of expertise — VC, entrepreneurship, open heart surgery, patent law — the real experts agree 99 percent of the time on 99 percent of the issues. In a lot of areas, there simply is one correct way to do things. (For example, anyone who claims to be an experienced software developer but does not use some form of version control is in my mind simply wrong.) We read about the areas where people disagree while forgetting that such areas are unusual.

    Debates can be interesting. In addition, however, there is value in five experts all saying the same thing if the people in the audience are not experts. If they are, then it would be a waste of time.

    If you’re going to have a debate, it should be between two people, with a good moderator.

  • FROM Fred Wilson’g blog — “I think it’s well understood that I am a big fan of the lean startup
    methodology and the program looks excellent. No panels!!! Just case
    studies, short talks, and keynotes. That’s the way to do it.”

    Brad — you pointed out the problem, but no real solution. Fred summarized the solution in 15 words.

    • You are correct – I bloviated for a while looking for empathy while Fred
      followed the lean startup approach and just offered a solution.

  • Felch McFinnerty

    People with egos the size o’ Montana don’t like sharing the sandbox with anyone. This carries on into later life – ergo – NO PANELS PAL!!