Brad Feld

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Why Panels Suck And My New Approach To Panels

May 07, 2011
Category Education

I’ve been getting at least one invitation a day to speak on at a conference or on a panel. My general rule is to only say yes when it intersects with my travel, if it is for an organization I’m already involved in or a person I want to support, or if it’s in a place I’m interested in visiting. When invited, I typically end up getting asked to give a keynote, be interviewed on stage, or be part of a panel. I enjoy the first two and hate the last one.

Fred Wilson and I were both on an email thread today from a good friend of ours asking us to be on a panel with him at an event in November. Based on my rules above, I said “yes, if it’s really important to you.” Fred had a better answer:

“i have a no panels rule. 
i am trying like hell to enforce it. 
panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”

Fred is so correct on this. Whenever I’m in the audience listening to a panel, I’m almost always bored. Every now and then someone on the panel captivates me, but the vast majority are dull, vapid, generic, stupid, non-controversial, politically correct, or just plain boring. And a conference of panels? “E#kl;asdfpoi#0c90k;@$Q”.

When I give a keynote, I usually do a 15 minute rant on whatever topic I think is relevant to the audience and then do Q&A for whatever my allotted time is. I’ve generally stopped “telling my story” since I find myself incredibly boring to listen to when I’m recounting my history. Every now and then I fall into this trap of an extended introduction and always am annoyed with myself. Whenever I do this (and I did it a few weeks ago in front a class of undergrads) I hit myself in the forehead afterwards and say out loud “don’t do that again.”

I’ve never been a particularly obedient panelist. I’ve been told numerous times that my body language gives away my response to whomever is talking, especially if I don’t agree with them or think what they are saying is wrong. While I try to let people finish their thoughts, I’m not bashful about cutting in and I’d guess that I usually end up taking more than my calculated ratio of air time (e.g. if four panelist, I talk more than 25% of the time.)

While I’m not going to adopt Fred’s no panel rule, I’ve decided that I’m going to have a much higher bar going forward for agreeing to be on panels. And, when I do, the panel inviter should beware that I’m going to be even more assertive about my perspective, especially if I’m bored while sitting on the panel. Maybe that’ll filter out all the panel inviters that want a nice peaceful panel.

And – if you are a conference organizer, consider eliminating the panels altogether. As Fred says, “panels are awful and should be eliminated from planet earth.”