The conditions for a worthwhile panel discussion are seldom met.
Therefore panel discussions are usually disappointing.
From personal experience I struggle to recall a single exception to prove this rule. I can think of several great speeches. I could rattle off a long list of great talks and presentations. But great is not a descriptor that is often applied to panel discussions, other than in ridiculously hyperbolic tweets from SXSW.
There’s a reason why panel discussions don’t feature on TED.
This is realism rather than cynicism.
The conditions for a worthwhile panel are as follows. And, unfortunately for worthwhile panels, at least five out of six of these conditions have to be met.
- A topic that is of value to the audience.
- Charismatic panelists.
- Research and preparation to inform points of view.
- A preparedness to be outspoken or controversial or revelatory.
- A skillful moderator (aka fire-starter).
- Non-inane, provocative questions from the audience.
These conditions are rarely satisfied because panels are an inherently lazy event format.
Panels are easier than talks. You can get away with going through the motions as both panel organiser and panel participant. And that’s what most panel organisers and participants do. They take the path of least resistance.
Why put time and effort into preparation when I have lots of other work to do and there are three other panelists to hide behind and I sort of know the subject and I can wing it?
Why rock the boat with a controversial point of view? The long term risks far outweigh the short-lived reward.
Why choose a subject or panelists that might offend and deter sponsors?
Why share some valuable, original thinking in an environment where minimum credit will accrue?
The preparation (lack of) issue is perhaps the least forgivable, even if it is understandable. It shows a lack of respect for the audience.
At Festival Number 6, actor and comedian Steve Coogan gave an interview in front of a jam packed central piazza in the village of Portmeirion. It was effectively a single-panelist panel discussion.
It was disappointing. With hindsight it couldn’t have been anything other than disappointing.
The highly talented Mr Coogan and his no-doubt clever biographer-cum-interviewer went through the motions of talking about his talent and his creative output, when what we all wanted was for him to show his talent and perform some of his creative output.
High expectations plus lazy format equals let-down.
But also revealing.
At one point an audience member shouted out something along the lines of “be funny”.
Coogan’s response laid bare the harsh reality of the interview/panel format.
You have to pay real money for that.
In other words, if you want me to write original material, if you want me to rewrite and edit and rewrite again to make it really good, and if you want me to prepare and rehearse to deliver a great performance, then you have to pay real money. Not the kind of money you pay for a quick, bit-part interview on a lesser stage at a star-studded, three day festival.
Ten out of ten for transparency.
Ironically this moment of outspoken candour was one of the high points of the session. It’s not enough to be charismatic. You have to be provocative too.
The other high point was generated by a non-inane, provocative question from an audience member.
As an Alan Partridge fan, Steve, I’m interested to know whether you live in a hard water area or a soft water area.
The question itself got a big laugh from a knowledgeable audience. It was very Alan Partridge. We all knew it.
And Coogan knew it too.
He couldn’t help himself. He laughed and acknowledged that this was exactly the kind of issue that would interest Alan. But then, guard down, he went on to explain that the reason Alan Partridge would find it interesting was that he, Steve Coogan, had a nerdy interest in this sort of thing too. He then basically ad-libbed a pretty funny routine about soft water in Manchester, where he was brought up, and hard water and descaling kettles in Brighton, where he currently lives. We got a telling insight into just how much of Steve Coogan went into Alan Partridge, without having to pay proper money for it. Sucker!
For two brief moments the panelist and the audience combined to satisfy enough conditions to make the format work. But, sadly, the session was not inherently satisfying throughout.
By contrast, Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, the infamous drug baron and famous author was an intensely gratifying panel of one interviewee.
Interesting subject matter?
Try drug smuggling. Try the sixties. The Manchester music scene. Youth culture. Doing hard time in a United States penitentiary.
Even suffering from terminal cancer he had a twinkle in his eye and easily enthralled his audience.
Research and preparation?
It is probably trite to say that his whole life has prepared him to talk like he did. But he has also written a new book, called Mr Smiley: My Last Pill And Testament, in which he apparently spills all sorts of beans.
Prepared to be outspoken and controversial?
Are you kidding?
He was interviewed by his friend Greg Wilson and he obviously felt totally at ease as a result.
Well, aside from some very good questions (candidly answered) the audience also provided him with a spliff that was apparently strong even by his standards.
Six out of six conditions satisfied.
It was a great panel (of one).
It was that elusive exception that proves the rule.
But, as a rule, panel discussions still suck.