Why We Use Panels

Until there is a shift in participant priorities, the panel will never die.
Late last year Duncan Green published Conference rage: How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? Green makes some very compelling points about how “‘Manels’ (male only panels) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?” Rage against the machine – great band – ineffective life strategy. Rather than spark your Conference Rage, we hope to help participants understand the incentives that drive the traditional panel structure.
There have been a flurry of blogs published in 2017 questioning why panels are still a commonly used format for conferences, and challenging the industry to change the fundamental structure of how we run events. Kristin Hull of Nia Community recently published on the importance of abolishing ‘manels’ for impact investing, though her arguments could apply to conferences more broadly.  There is a strong difference between failing to integrate diversity – of gender, race, age, etc. – and simply defaulting to using panels as your go to design format.  We’ve explored in previous blogs strategies for increasing participant diversity which you can read more about here and here.
At Conveners.org, we believe that the most effective convenings bring the valuable conversations that are usually relegated to the hallways into the center of the event. We’ve explored with our members how to integrate unconferences, workshops, world cafes, ignite talks, debates, and other facilitation frameworks to create more of those magical or memorable moments that come from transforming your attendees into participants.

In a recent interview with Andy Stoll of the Kauffman Foundation, he shared their design principles for the ESHIP Summit. “While panels and learning through speakers can be valuable – the internet exists and people can do typical one way learning online, but it is difficult to replicate the opportunity to connect one on one and build relationships that happens in person.”

Unfortunately until participants shift their decision making behavior for why they attend a conference nothing is going to change in the industry.  
People currently choose the conferences they attend for one (or all) of three factors:

  1. Will I be speaking on stage?
  2. Who else is speaking that I want to meet?
  3. Have I gone to this event before?

When the audience makes it’s purchasing decision based on speaking and speakers, then the system of panels is perpetuated as most conveners cannot risk low attendance.  
It is also very expensive to run convenings that are participatory and highly facilitated.
When organizing a conference panels provide a relatively easy to manage and low cost structure for your event. There are a number of incentives driving the inclusion of panels as the most prominent format used at conferences.  

  1. They enable a large number of speakers who draw ticket sales on the website
  2. They are easy to keep to a set schedule
  3. Panels highlight the topics that will be relevant at the event
  4. They are predictable (even if predictably bad)

When a convener integrates participant focused design elements it usually requires a high capacity for facilitators to navigate those conversations. The Kauffman Foundation with their ESHIP conference represented the best in class delivery of a collaborative convening where participants were able to work together towards a common purpose. As Andy shared, “There is someone in the room with half of a great idea and somewhere in the conference another person has the other half of that great idea.  Getting them to connect – creating an environment where 500 people can talk to 500 people – then two halves of an idea can come together.”
We find that those conveners who take the risk and utilize participant led design structures like Opportunity Collaboration, The ColliderFRANK, and Greenermind Summit, tend to build deep and lasting community. Though they start small, they tend to grow through word of mouth and participant referrals.  The online “speaker list” – showing incredible people that you will likely never get to talk to unless you swarm them after their talk (and thus are lost in the maddening daze that happens right after a speaker gets off stage) can be transformed. Unconferences can use their participant list as a draw – and those who attend these events know that they will ACTUALLY get to connect with the people they see on the website.  
This gets to the other key barrier to shifting away from panels – which is cost.
Opportunity Collaboration has successfully built a model where they have volunteers who pay to attend the event and also give their time to be trained as moderators and serve for the Colloquium for the Common Good – an experience at the heart of what it means to address power, poverty, and privilege. For most conveners accessing that capacity for a skilled facilitator or moderator is prohibitively expensive – and thus restricts the ability to put highly interactive formats at the forefront of the design.  

“I’ve come to learn that in a decade of doing this work that events are the single best way to create and propagate culture” – Andy Stoll

The opportunity conveners have to create lasting community, connections, and trust comes down to the culture you create at your event. It can be challenging to spark ongoing collaborations or commitments from your participants.  Recreating virtually the magic that happens when people connect in person is exceptionally hard. Andy also shared that “when two people meet at a later point after the conference – they will behave under the culture of that event because they don’t know any other way to interact.” We find this to be almost obvious for convenings with a long standing cultural norm – Opportunity Collaboration, Renaissance Weekend, Social Venture Network, and Skoll World Forum all create a powerful culture for their community. Though, even new events like Katapult Future Festival, ESHIP, and ConnectUP MN are working hard to integrate intentionality into their convening experience with an emphasis on building the cultural underpinnings necessary to build lasting community.
World Affairs Council has innovated on ways to explore a topic in-depth, with a curated group of participants through their Conversation Starter Series. Not only are they able to engage their community year round, they are also able to build a vibrant participatory conversation.   
As a final thought:
If you are designing an event, and your goal is to build strong community, facilitate shared learning, build trust, or foster relationships that lead to collaboration – we encourage you to explore other facilitation formats rather than the traditional panel.  
If you frequently attend conferences – use your power to shift the model!  Register for events that speak to the culture they are building – take a chance on an unconference. Provide feedback to any event you attend and let them know what experiences you find most valuable and what will secure your participation in future events.  
Both conveners and attendees share the responsibility for shifting us away from panels and towards participant centric experiences.