Get rid of panel discussions – they suck!

Southeast Asia sees its fair share of conferences and events in all kinds of areas. Education, Tech, Entrepreneurship, IT, Construction, Tech, Startups, and Tech. It’s nice to see all those areas blossom and attend events where people that are ‘in’ those topics can pat each other on the back and feel appreciated.

Right? Well. It seems so. To be honest though, I always hated this back patting. Even better: Networking! Ooooooh. Business card exchange ole! That’s when you can show off all the creativity that you put into coming up with cool job descriptions or the ‘google me’ (that’s so 1999!) line. Networking is the worst. Well not actual networking of course. Getting stuff done is great and awesome but those forced networking events and activities. Please.

There’s one thing that is even worse though. Panel Discussions!

Panel Discussions kill kittens

Panel discussions seem to have some kind of revival. At least it feels like it. They’ve always been there but more often than not they now headline conferences and events. Maybe that has always been the case and I didn’t realize it as much but by now I am really annoyed by it. Why you ask? Good question, let’s break it down:

Why Panel Discussions suck part I – Boring & bored people

That’s a combination made in hell! You’ve got 4-5 people on stage that are busy patting each other’s back and telling the world how awesome they are and while doing so boring the shit out of the attendees. Be honest: Did you ever see a panel discussion that keeps the audience engaged until the end? (Not even the Webmasters on the roof were able to do that the last time I saw them – and they are usually funny and interesting!).

So here we are. Listening to ‘industry leaders’ that are there to improve their brand image, increase brand awareness and get some quick marketing in and hence they obviously won’t say anything controversial or offend anyone. How exciting! Moreover those panels usually look quite comfortable so that panelists have it nice (no problem with that per se, but..) and don’t really feel like they are on the spot. Very often panelists just sit their, all relaxed and blah blah blah their way until the end while sipping water and eating snacks. And we pay to see & hear that?

The audience then often, of course, loses focus and starts to tweet, surf the web or whatever which is understandable to some extend. One could argue that if I pay an entrance fee I should try to be as active as possible to take away as much as possible but even conference attendees are only humans at the end of the day. Most of them at least.

So that gives us boring panelists and a bored audience. If we would only have someone who could shake this up? Oh wait. There is someone. At least someone’s supposed to be there. The moderator.

Why Panel Discussions suck part II – Boring moderators

Yeah. The MC. Yo Yo! I can’t remember how many panels I watched and thought “Holy shit that moderator is boring as hell”. And I get it, it’s not an easy job. It really isn’t. How do I know? I moderated panels. And yes, it’s a pain in the ass. The preparation that SHOULD go into preparing a panel is insane. At least if you want to make it ‘cool’ (if that’s possible). The moderator needs to be familiar with all the panelists. Not only with their CV but also with what they were up to recently, what they like, dislike, etc. All this makes a good conversation. If you only know the basic shit from linkedin then you won’t be able to have an intriguing conversation that keeps the audience engaged. And that’s what you want.

If you know your stuff you are able to switch easily between panelists, you realize when someone gets uncomfortable and you see possibilities when questions come up to steer discussions in a certain way, keep them going or move to other topics. If you didn’t spend time preparing, all you do is saying ‘what do you think about that…?’ and that is….again…boring!

I hate unprepared moderators. Not sure if you got that already. Hate ’em! I went to a really cool conference (re:publica) not too long ago and saw a panel on a topic I considered interesting but the two (!) moderators where so bad…I even left before it was over. Terrible. Ruined everything. Moderators are so crucial to successful panels. They dictate the flow, keep it interesting and have to make sure it won’t get boring or turn into a marketing show.

So get your shit together! That however is not always easy because….the topics often suck as well.

Why Panel Discussions suck part III – Boring topics

As mentioned above very often panelists and moderators don’t want to go on a course that is too edgy and presents too many difficult questions to answer since panel discussions are very often thought of as easy marketing platforms and as a means to increase once own image. That’s why topics of panel discussions quite often suck. A lot. The reason why people still attend is either because panels are on at conference prime time or simply at the end so that attendees just feel like ‘ok, I’ll take that too’.  But when there are no difficult or controversial topics, how should the discussion turn out to be interesting and how should the moderator make it an engaging event?

I don’t mean that panels need to look like a Jerry Springer show but at least try to address somehow interesting topics and not just super general ‘the future of XYZ’ shit where all participants say whatever they want in order to promote their brand without actually saying anything.

Oh panels, just go away.




Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at
Sascha is the publisher of and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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