Oral Torah of a different sort…

Facilitation 501: How to construct and deliver a panel

The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah are supporting Hazon (and, I think, some other organizations) in our “oral Torah” project – helping us to harvest some of our accrued wisdom over these last fifteen years. It’s a fascinating process, reflecting on some of the things that we feel we have learned or do well, and starting to codify them.

Most of this is focused on framing Jewish tradition: how, and why, and in what ways, we draw connections between Jewish tradition and the world that we live in today. Allowing Jewish tradition out of the small boxes we sometimes place it in.

But marinating in Jewish tradition like this – allowing it out, as it were, to roam more widely – also can and should enable us to see aspects of contemporary life with a Jewish sensibility also.

And so it is, therefore, that I offer you today a very different kind of “oral Torah.” I have earned it and learned it slowly, by trial and error, over 20 years. It consists in ten rules to help you construct, produce and deliver superb panels at conferences and events. At our Food Conferences, our Ride Retreats, and a growing number of other events, we strive for excellence. This is a small, invisible but not insignificant part of what we do and how we do it. I hope, expect and intend that this should be widely useful.

Feel free to amend, edit, clarify and circulate…

  1. Five people on a panel is too many. Three in my view is ideal. Four is ok, if the session is long enough and you have a strong chair;
  2. Think about balance of all sorts. There should, in particular, be roughly equal numbers of women and men. Guys: if you’re invited to be on a panel and it’s only guys, or it’s four men and one woman, then you shouldn’t accept, unless there’s an exceptionally good specific reason to do so.[1]
  3. If you’re chairing a panel: don’t read long bios when introducing panelists. If people have conference documents by all means give them written long bios. But if you’re chairing a panel, don’t read a full bio and keep your introduction to the panelists to two sentences max;
  4. If you’re chairing a panel: you don’t need a one-hour pre-session conference-call to prep it. For 90% of panels – any group, any topic, any audience – the format should be “you have 5 to 7 minutes to make your main points. Then we’re going to go to Q&A, and you’ll have lots of time during Q&A to say more…”
  5. Do do a tech check beforehand. Make sure the mikes are sorted, if you’re using a mike. Make sure the powerpoint works, if you’re using powerpoint. Make sure each speaker can move from slide to slide and that that works too;
  6. If you’re chairing a panel: make clear to the speakers (no matter how famous or important) that their allotted time is x minutes and that you intend them to keep to it. Make clear that you’ll motion when their time is up, and ask them to conclude their remarks if they start to go over. This is especially important with the first panelist to speak: if each panelist was allotted 8 minutes and s/he in fact speaks for 15, you’ve now lost the whole session – there is almost no chance that the subsequent speakers won’t do likewise;
  7. After panelists have finished their first round of comments, don’t go straight to Q&A. The right thing to do at that point – with an audience of 20 or an audience of 2,000 – is to thank the panelists for their remarks and turn to the audience and say, “I hope you found that as fascinating as I did. I’m now going to invite you to turn to your neighbor and take a couple of minutes to reflect on what you found most interesting, what struck you, what questions you have…” Within 15 seconds there will be a hubbub in the room. In general I give people about 3 or 4 minutes at this point. If you do more than that, people may start to lose focus. Much less and people don’t really have a chance to think. This process is in my view an absolutely vital and yet almost never-used part of chairing something. It has huge and positive impact for all sorts of reasons. First, the people in any crowd who are most urgent – who fling their hands in the air at the first moment, sometimes with long and waffly questions – have the chance to release some of their urgency – on their neighbor, and not on the whole audience. Secondly, in having a chance to reflect, people invariably ask more thoughtful questions. And there is also in a subtle sense an aspect of respect for the audience: in at least a small way you are saying, this is not just unidirectional – each of you is here not only to listen but to be listened to. And doing this keeps a better flow, covers more ground, and allows you and the panelists to escape from a toxic questioner, if there should be one;
  8. Especially if it’s a large audience it’s almost always better not to take questions one at a time. Take two or three questions at once and then turn to the panelists and say “take a stab at one or two – you don’t all have to answer all three questions.” Doing this keeps a better flow, and covers more ground;
  9. Panels should start on time. In practice, given the culture of the event that you’re at, that might or might not be possible. But regardless of when they start they should, in my view, end absolutely on time, and as chair you’re responsible for that. Tell your panelists before it begins that you’ll take the last questions from the audience about 10 minutes or 5 minutes before the end of the session, and that after that you’ll give each panelist a last word, to cover anything that s/he wants to add. In general if you have run a tight ship, people will speak succinctly and you’ll end on time. If for any reason the first person starts to speak for too long, politely but firmly intervene;
  10. Paraphrasing George Orwell’s famous last piece of advice in his Politics and the English Language (which you should read now, if you haven’t ever read it, and thenceforth once a year), ignore any of these rules if doing so will improve your panel.

Happy Panelizing! And let me know if you have any additions or emendations.

[1] A couple of months ago I was invited to join a panel that I would love to have been on, but it was five guys and one woman, and I said a/ that’s too many people period and b/ the ratio is wrong – and I took myself off, even though in other ways I would love to have been on it. It ended up being a good lesson in ego, actually – I was in the audience and it was a superb panel and would not have been in any way better had I been on it.