10 ways to save conference panels

It’s really astounding how poor most conference panels are.  The biggest problem is the expectation that if you get four smart, interesting people together on stage to have a conversation, that they’ll automatically have an interesting conversation.  Most of the time, they won’t.

Great conversations grow out of shared norms and trust between the actors – in this case, the panelists, the moderator and the audience.  Trust is often hard to build, so let’s start with norms.  Here’s what we can do right, every time:

  1. Start with a great moderator. Moderation is a skill, and it requires asking tough questions and a willingness to cut people off.  The moderator also has to know the subject area to be able to direct the conversation effectively.
  2. Empower the moderator. No matter who’s the best-known person on stage, it’s the moderator’s show.  The moderator is the master of ceremonies, not a sideshow or “nice to have.”
  3. Don’t have panelists from wildly diverse fields. No matter how impressive the names you can pull together, most of the time you’re trying to have a conversation focused on a (bounded) topic.  A civil rights lawyer, a CEO, a cabinet member and a movie star talking about “women’s issues” are going to have a very hard time getting past generalities.
  4. Prepare the group. Have the moderator talk to the panelists before the presentation, and set the ground-rules: no responses greater than 60 seconds, I will cut you off.  You can’t have a great panel if everyone shows up the day of the panel without having talked first, by phone or email (but preferably by phone).  Having a few of the panelists know each other is a big plus.
  5. Set goals. Your panelists are likely not improve artists, so don’t expect spontaneous insights without some map of where you’re going.   Decide in advance, and share with your panelists, points you’re going to make sure you hit in the discussion.  You can do this in a way that keeps the conversation organic, but gives a sense of milestones and a destination.
  6. No powerpoint presentations. Self explanatory.
  7. Short introductory remarks. Tell panelists they have 2-3 minutes.  They’ll still take 5, but probably won’t take 20.
  8. (in the Q&A) People must ask questions. Questions from the audience are great.  Speeches from the audience are not.  Insist that questions be one sentence long, and be willing to redirect, restate, or take a pass on a question that’s off topic.
  9. One question, one response. The norm should be that only one panelist responds to each question – and then make an occasional exception.  With a lax moderator, each panelist feels like they’re supposed to pipe in, and this can be deadly.  If each question gets 4 responses, and each response is 1-2 minutes, that’s 5-8 minutes per question asked.  Yawn.
  10. Go deeper, not broader. Whoever is asking the question (moderator or audience), the moderator should be ready with follow-ups that start with “What did you mean by….”  “I didn’t follow you when you said…” “Doesn’t that contradict…” The goal is to uncover things that are surprising and delightful, which only happens when you break through the stock answers.

Until we get this right, the main function of panelists will be as names on a program to attract conference attendance, and as validation of the stature of the panelists themselves.  This is fine as far as it goes, but it takes so little to do a whole lot better.

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Permission

I’m not much of a glass-breaker, usually.  My natural tendency is to build consensus, get buy-in.  And I’ve kind of had it with this approach.

I’m not planning to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I’m realizing that sometimes I need to get the heck out of my own way.

Before you say to someone, “I thought you might want to know that I’m planning to…” make sure you know why you’re saying it.  Do you need input and approval, or are you really just saying “I’m telling you this because this way you have a chance to say ‘no,’ and if you don’t, it means that you’ve OKed what I’m about to do.”

Nice to have the approval but what happens when:

  1. Folks say no; or
  2. They weigh in with a different opinion, and you need to do something with their advice?

One way to tell why you’re asking: if someone were to say, “no way,” would you do it anyway?  If so, then what are you gaining by asking?

Go ahead, break something.

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Eulogy as reminder

I recently heard a sermon about the importance of looking back at life from the perspective of how we want to be remembered.  It’s so stark to ask, “how would I live my life differently if I cared only about the things that really matter” that it can seem like a chasm too broad to cross.

Maybe, but occasionally the right reminder at the right moment is enough to help us reorient, to make one decision, big or small, a little differently.  So here goes.

Here’s an excerpt from Ted Kennedy Jr’s eulogy for his father.  Whatever you think of Senator Kennedy, the memories one leaves one’s son (or a spouse, or a friend, or someone we see in passing every day) is the real mirror on our lives – how we carry ourselves in the world, the values we espouse, and how we shine our own light on others.

When I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with bone cancer and a few months after I lost my leg, there was a heavy snowfall over my childhood home outside of Washington D.C. My father went to the garage to get the old Flexible Flyer and asked me if I wanted to go sledding down the steep driveway. And I was trying to get used to my new artificial leg and the hill was covered with ice and snow and it wasn’t easy for me to walk. And the hill was very slick and as I struggled to walk, I slipped and I fell on the ice and I started to cry and I said “I can’t do this.” I said, “I’ll never be able to climb that hill.” And he lifted me in his strong, gentle arms and said something I’ll never forget. He said “I know you’ll do it, there is nothing you can’t do. We’re going to climb that hill together, even if it takes us all day.”

Sure enough, he held me around my waist and we slowly made it to the top, and, you know, at age 12 losing a leg pretty much seems like the end of the world, but as I climbed onto his back and we flew down the hill that day I knew he was right. I knew I was going to be OK. You see, my father taught me that even our most profound losses are survivable and it is what we do with that loss, our ability to transform it into a positive event that is one of my father’s greatest lessons. He taught me that nothing is impossible.

That’s a lesson worth remembering.

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Without even asking

One of my first blog posts (and one that still gets a lot of traffic) was about Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, or tzedakah. What interests me about this text is the recognition that people give for different reasons, some more base, and some more laudable.

One of the more honorable form of charity, according to Maimonides, is giving without ever being asked to give.  Lately, during my day job, I’ve been getting more calls from people who want to make significant gifts to Acumen Fund.  Until you’ve had a conversation with someone who decided, independently and without anyone asking, to make a major philanthropic donation, it’s hard to appreciate fully what an amazing gift this is.  And while I fully believe in the importance and the power of asking as a way of mobilizing people to action, the selflessness that’s required proactively to reach out to a nonprofit with an unsolicited decision to make a significant gift…well that’s just the kind of decision that makes me want to wake up the next morning and work harder and do more.

So whether it’s to support Acumen Fund or any organization that is doing good work, my thanks goes out today to those of you who give and who ask for nothing in return.  You know who you are, and your humility and generosity give me great hope.

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1-4-5-2-3

Here’s a reasonable-sounding process to go through when prepping for a big presentation:

  1. Figure out what you want to say
  2. Write this up in slides, with some combination of words, charts, and images
  3. Refine those slides
  4. Rehearse the presentation
  5. Present

Unfortunately this doesn’t work.

What happens is that slides that were going to become better, the slides that had too many words that you were going to fix….they make their way into your “draft” presentation.  Then you fall into the trap of presenting your slides instead of presenting your story – the slides start to win.  Unless you have the gumption to throw out half or all of these slides at this point, your goose is cooked.

Another approach is 1-4-5-2-3.  That is, figure out what you’re going to say, work on that (no slides), and then rehearse it with your colleagues.  You can even stand up like everyone else does in rehearsals, and have a single slide projected, with the title of your presentation and nothing else.  Use the rehearsal to refine the story, and then create slides that support your story.

The reason the first approach seems like it will work  is because we think writing slides is a shorthand version of writing a Word doc, but it’s not.  We also get so distracted by slide creation that we underplay the value of standing in front of people and telling them, very simply, the story we want to tell.

Slides are nothing more and nothing less than a visual aid to support your story.  If you go about creating them the normal way, you’ll end up with a story to support your slides, instead of the other way around.

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The everyone test

Whose side are you on?  When you think about your colleagues, your supervisors, the people who work for you, whom do you want to see succeed?

“I want everyone to succeed.”

OK good.

But is that “everyone, as long as I succeed the most” or “everyone?”  Because those are two very different answers.

So take the everyone test, by asking yourself: how would I act if I cared just as much about our organization’s success as I do now…but you suddenly disappeared, couldn’t get any credit at all, had no personal stake in an outcome, and really, truly, only wanted everyone around you to succeed?

  • How much more coaching would you do?
  • How much more constructive would you be?
  • How much more honest would you be?
  • How much more time would you take to teach?
  • How much more credit would you share?
  • How much more time and energy would you spend observing people’s strengths, rather than quietly noting their weaknesses?
  • How would you better amplify these strengths with your own feedback and actions?

If your answer to all of these question is “none,” then I applaud you.

I for one know that I have room for growth here, that I’m always working to find the balance between a ruthless aspiration for the best outcomes with a deep-seated belief that it takes a diverse set of talents to get there.

Unless you’re a writer, a tennis player or a virtuoso musician, one of the most important skills is to raise others up, to help them be their best selves.  Having those around you shine brightly is often a better marker of success than what you, personally, are able to achieve.

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The only guy I met

The other day I took about eight boxes of books and clothes to the Salvation Army, part of a (meant to be) biannual, you-ever-going-to-wear-this-again? ritual that I talked about here.

I have to admit, there’s so much inertia around getting this done that when I get enough momentum to go through my closet, pack up clothes, and get out of the house, I don’t stop to ask whether the Salvation Army or Goodwill or anywhere else is the most efficient place to give things away.  I just assume that stuff that I drop off at the local Salvation Army eventually ends up in the hands of the people who need it.  Trust in a brand, through and through.

My local Salvation Army is an ominous, somewhat murky place: a giant, brick, 1930s warehouse with a single door leading to a small room with one small desk.  The only other door opens to a giant room filled with trash bags of dropped-off, donated stuff.

The giant room is enough to raise some questions: how long do these clothes sit here?  Do they end up in the right hands?

I should find out more, to be sure.  But I haven’t and I don’t, yet I still end up feeling like things are going to be OK.  Here’s why:  the guy who mans that tiny front desk where I drop off the clothes is such an obviously compassionate, serious, considered person – and this comes across so readily in even a short interaction with him – that I’m left with a sense of confidence.

Specifically, I think, “if he’s here manning this ship, then he’s made a decision based on a lot more information than I’ll be able to get easily”  Barring my own opportunity to really dig in and learn more, I’m going to trust this decision of his as proxy for my own due diligence.

To me, on this day, this guy was the whole story.  He was the only guy I met, and he is the Salvation Army to me, just like the Zappo’s Customer Loyalty Team is Zappos to their customers (and if you haven’t seen this New Yorker article on Zappos, it’s worth the read).  In fact, Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh doesn’t even care much about shoes, he cares about culture and about the consumer’s experience.

If this is right – if for most of the people most of the time, their experience of the organization is about the one person they meet – tell me again, what’s the desired profile of people who serve on the front lines in your organization (your delivery people, your teachers, your CSR reps, your repairmen and women, your fundraisers)? How important are these roles?  What’s their status within your organization?

Is there a single reason why you’d want these folks to be anything other than  your best, brightest, blow-me-out-of-the-water, if-you-work-here-it-must-be-great, people?

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