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What are the Keys to a Good Conference or Panel?

Much as I might like to be, I am not, as two different people have jokingly (mockingly? ;) referred to me in the wake of this Business 2.0 piece on the subject featuring commentary from yours truly, the “king” of unconferences. That appellation should probably be reserved for someone that’s managed to make more than one of these types of events – my sole experience being the excellent Mashup Camp last summer (looking forward to this year’s iteration).

What I am, however, is a big fan of the idea. My affection for unconferences is simple, and derived from my experiences covering open source technologies and communities: I believe that a group of people tends to be more interesting and more creative than an individual, no matter how experienced or intelligent they might be. This doesn’t mean that I see no purpose in attending talks given by smart individuals, quite the contrary. I extended my stay at last year’s Zend Conference just so that I could attend a talk given by Adam Bosworth (I even got to meet him briefly), and I’d do that again in a heartbeat.

But those types of talks, for me anyhow, are rare. Apart from such exceptions, all things being equal I prefer to attend sessions that are highly interactive and involve heavy audience participation. Sessions like those at unconferences. I value the hallway conversations over sessions at a good number of the conferences I attend.

I bring this up primarily because there’s been a lot of talk recently about panels and their value. Werner Vogels, for example, is apparently not a fan and prefers some strife – real or artificial – to spice things up. Rule #1 from Jerry Weissman is “Invite Conflict.” Maybe conflict is the only way to hold an audience’s attention, I don’t know. This view is validated to some extent by the common feedback at conferences that I attend, which amounts to “less panels, more talks.”

Before I continue I should confess that I’m biased on the subject, because I both sit on and moderate a fair number of panels – a couple a month, during peak travel season. But even before that became a part of my job description, I was an unrepentent fan of panels, primarily because they’re more interactive, more dynamic, and often more interesting. Not because they’re more contentious, or more dramatic. I like hearing from different perspectives and viewpoints, which a panel does more effectively than a talk.

I do, however, tend to conduct the panels I moderate a little differently. In what I’ve been told is a Kawasaki style, I do not prep panelists or prebrief them on what I’m going to ask, and I avoid even planning calls whenever possible. Neither do I allow panelists to use slides. Why? Because both of those things, in my view, throttle spontaneity and participation. I’ve also begun to dramatically increase the allotment of time for user questions and viewpoints. At the CTC panel I recently moderated, I didn’t ask more than three or four questions; the balance of the hour was occupied by audience members asking our panelists what they wanted to know, rather than what I thought they might want to know. I’d prepared questions in the event that the audience ran out, but otherwise let them more or less run the show. It’s not quite Ross’ “exploding the room,” but I think it’s pretty close.

My keys to a good conference or panel are pretty simple: keep it loose, keep it fun, and keep it interactive. If all of those criteria are satisfied, the worst thing you’ll be able to say is that you had a good time.

How about you folks – what makes for a good conference on your end?

Categories: Conferences & Shows.

  • http://duckdown.blogspot.com James

    Not prepping panelists in advance makes it problematic for most enterprisey folk except myself of course.

    You should consider making exceptions here as we really do need more enterprise participation in the technology ecosystem…

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady stephen o’grady

    i don’t know about that. i’ve moderated panels with enterprisey folk before, and never had a problem with not prepping them. craig burlingame, for example, from the State of MA sat on a panel with me at OSBC last year and fielded pretty much whatever was thrown his way.

    if panelists have something they absolutely cannot have discussed, they can certainly let me know before hand but i don’t see how prepping them benefits them or the audience.