I spend a decent amount of time at conferences and on conference panels, and I’ve seen my share of best and worst practices by moderators and panelists alike. My favorite *worst* practices include panelists giving exhaustive biographies, using every answer for blatant promotion, and every panelist answering every single question in the order they’re seated.
But I recently had the pleasure of being on a panel that was not like the others, and in fact the format worked quite well. It was at the Digital Hollywood Summit and the moderator who brought this new approach was Steve Bradbury of Zazoom, and I’m not sure what he calls it but I’ll call it “Agree or Disagree.”
He asked the panelists for potential topics beforehand, and as we arrived he handed us a list of 20 numbered questions/statements. Our panel was on shifts in Hollywood and content, and included things like “One of the major broadcast networks will go out of business in 5 years,” or “Apple TV will eventually dominate the living room.” After very brief introductions, he asked each panelist to pick any question and then Agree or Disagree and explain why. Then he put it up on the screen (he had each on a Powerpoint slide), then asked for points of view from other panelists (particularly those with different opinions), as well as audience feedback. We ended up covering 8-10 of the questions that were most interesting to the panelists, and the feedback and engagement from the audience was really positive and made for an engaging session.
The other best format I’ve ever seen is a little trickier and needs the right audience/venue and a really talented moderator, and I’ll call this one the “Open Seat.” It was at the Skoll World Forum and in addition to the 4 panelists up on stage, they had one empty seat. The empty seat was for an audience member who had a strong point of view to add to the conversation – and one by one about a half dozen attendees came up and sat in the seat and really added value to the discussion, and quietly sat down to let the next point of view come up from the audience. It was extremely interactive and worked particularly well because of the quality of the audience and the moderator and also the venue – it was a horseshoe classroom layout. This was long before Clint Eastwood and @invisibleobama , but it also got a lot of attention and I’d argue it worked better as a conference panel format than at the RNC.