Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Keeping panels on time: Have a 3-speaker limit

Want a panel that allows plenty of time for each speaker to get her points across? Want panels that allow time for audience questions? Want a panel that ends when the schedule says it will? There's an easy solution: Limit panels to no more than three speakers, plus one moderator.

The proliferation of speakers-per-panel is one of the starkest sign of how out of control panel discussions are today. Organizers think the panel must represent the universe, include all their friends, or represent other politics. And typically, this fault is a fault of the organizer: What speaker wants, as I was invited to do once, be part of a panel of 8 speakers, each with precisely 2.5 minutes to shed light on the topic?

For the moderator, too many speakers is even more challenging: Introductions take more time, Q&A will be tougher to manage, and the likelihood is high that none of the speakers and few audience members will be happy afterward, no matter what you do. You can expect time limits will be ignored, particularly as speakers try to pile on to a previous comment.  That's why too many panelists is my number one reason to say "no" to a panel invitation, whether you're the moderator or the speaker.

Panels of three speakers strike the right balance between varied viewpoints and enough time for speaker and audience to consider what's being said. A three-speaker limit means you don't have to choose between ending on time, and enough time for the discussion. More than three speakers means the moderator has a job that gets tougher every time someone is added.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by U.S. Department of Education)

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