Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How to keep me awake at the next conference panel

Some industry conference panels are more sleep-inducing than reading about Madonna's divorce denials.

The last thing I want to see at a conference I've paid good hard-earned money for is a bunch of presidents, CEO's, marketing VP's and public relations directors explain what their company is and the philosophy behind it.

Too many times I've gone to panels where the speakers are clients of the people producing them, and their presence is more like a returned favor than an invitation to bring something actually new to the table.

In my book, there are a few critical requirements to make any panel worth attending:

* Put yourselves in the audience's shoes. Every attendee should walk out after the panel is over with at least three ideas on how to be better at their job. People go to panels and conferences to be educated and inspired (and network, of course). Panelists should spend two or three minutes explaining their company, that's it. Then they should move on to teaching and informing. Yes, I believe being on a panel requires you to get in teacher's shoes, as corny as that sounds.

* Make the panelists work. For the moderator, the instructions have to be more than "I'll introduce you, tell them about what your company does, and bring your PowerPoint." There is nothing worse than when a panelist shifts to autopilot and brings the same song and dance they give to investors, new employees, and potential clients. Moderators should give panelists a little homework assignment, perhaps challenging them with a "what would you do in this situation" question or "what are the three books that you think everybody should read to do a better job and why?"

* Always have "leave behinds." Not corporate propaganda but one sheet from each panelist containing some key information that would make every attendee a better educated professional. Tips, advice, and beat and department phone numbers/e-mails would do the job.

* The venue should be wi-fi ready. Think of all the buzz mileage you get when attendees live blog from your conference.

* Make sure everybody on the panel has important things to teach, especially if they're sponsors or clients. Yes, they may have gotten an easy ticket on the panel because they already spend money with you, but that doesn't mean they can get away with an empty presentation. All panelists should be held to the same high contribution standards.

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