Hitting the academic conference trail this summer? Presenting at a conference is a way to shape a professional reputation — and requires some of the same skills as great teaching. Yet how many times have we sat through deadly readings (tempted, like our students, to check email or play Free Cell), or longed for the chance to participate more actively?
If you’re going to be the moderator, a recent article in the blog of the Harvard Business Review has a list of helpful suggestions (and, by extension, these ideas also have implications for individual speakers). All of them won’t work for every context, but most are good advice for avoiding “death by panel discussion.” The full article explains more fully, but here’s a partial list:
1. Don’t prepare with multiple conference calls agreeing on the content of every speaker’s talk. The resulting canned presentations can be ponderously dull.
2. Think really hard before using PowerPoint slides — they can lengthen and straightjacket the presentation, especially if it’s not a visual topic.
3. State your objective briefly and clearly at the outset. What is this panel, or this presentation, really about?
4. Panelist introductions should also be brief, and to the point (3 lines, max), especially if bios are in the program materials. (Organizers: consider a mobile app like Guidebook that links schedule and presenter information — free for groups up to 200).
5. Involve the audience within the first five minutes (but don’t lose control).
6. Don’t go down the line of all panelists for every question. How often does the fifth response to the same question add anything new or interesting?
7. Invite panelists to ask each other questions. If they have overlapping expertise, these questions may be more insightful or provocative than audience or moderator questions.
8. Divide the time among big picture issues, specifics, and genuine opportunities for audience participation.
9. Don’t ask the panelists for “one final thought.”
10. Stick to the allotted time.
Can we re-envision the panel as the catalyst of a collaborative conversation? Perhaps not in every discipline, but I’d love to see it tried.