Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Do Panels Suck? I'm not entirely convinced.

And it matters, as I plan the BlogHer Conference '05 agenda with cohorts Lisa and Jory (and the advice and feedback from both our Advisory Board and the people commenting on our site.)

Advisory Board member Mary Hodder definitely thinks Panels Suck. Okay, actually she says they're "dead."

Now, I know what Mary is talking about because I've been to a couple of the same conferences she has been to. Panels particularly suck if you've got a relatively small audience of people who could all conceivably be panelists. It's not always that they suck in that case because the panelists have nothing valuable to say...sometimes that case results in suckage because everyone in the audience is busier forming their brilliant, incisive questions and dissenting comments than they are listening. And panels particularly suck if it's clear that the presentation (usually bullet-laden PowerPoint slides) is a canned one that the presenter has given before and hasn't even bothered to customize much for the given crowd.

But I also think Mary attends a rather uniquely large number of conferences per year, and has seen the same faces, heard the same spiels and suffered through the same debates a disproportionately high number of times to the rest of the world, outside perhaps the couple hundred folks she's with now. The ennui she is suffering from is, perhaps, a luxury of the conference elite.

Of the BlogHer registrants thus far, more than 50% have never attended a blogging conference, or even individual session before. They are not over-familiar with any speaker, not even Robert Scoble.

And I also think Mary's penchant for single-leader-moderated session only works if you have a very rare commodity: a moderator like Mary herself. Because let me tell you my personal observation of other single-moderator-types at the last couple of conferences I attended that had them: it became all about them. Every question was first responded to by the leader, not the brilliant crowd. Mary's session at Bloggercon last year, for example, was the only one that didn't feel like that. So I'm not completely bought into the single discussion leader concept.

I do find her third suggestion really fun and interesting: "IF we do panels, any time there are more people lined up at the mic, than are on the panel, the panel and the people at the mic have to switch places." That sounds pretty cool. And in fact it might inspire some of the shyer folks in the crowd to loosen up and feel freer to speak up. I agree that panels set up an us/them, superior/inferior, Master/Little Grasshopper dynamic if not done well, and if the speakers veer uncontrollably into professorial patronization.

I think the decision on whether panels work or not ends up being an individual decision, session by session, audience by audience...sweeping statements don't work.

When you register for BlogHer there are a list of questions we ask...trying to understand who our specific audience is going to be. As I already mentioned, more than half have never attended a blogging conference before.

When these same registrants are asked what they've disliked about conferences they've attended in the past, two answer stick out. The first is: "Too much talk, not enough practical takeaway." And I happen to think that freewheeling interactive discussions often turn into a lot of talk, not so much heavy on the practical takeaway.

Then again the second most popular response to the question is (so far): "Too sterile, not enough passion." Funny huh?

So, the question is: can you be passionate about the practical? I think you can. And we're going to shoot for that combination. Session by session it a complicated puzzle...fitting in moderated discussions, Panels Without PowerPoints, technical training sessions, open networking sessions. I happen to think any conference benefits from a range of choices and a variety of approaches.

But what say you?

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