Just like trade shows, conferences have outlived their usefulness in most cases as well. Maybe they were never useful except in the rare instance of some superstar panelists, but even then the same problems apply. The problems?
If the panelists are boring, so are the panels.If the topic is boring, so is the panel.When the panelists use the session as a sales tool.When the panelists refuse to reveal any new information and just spew press release-talk.
This sounds like 99% of the panels we've all seen, right? So how can conferences be created that are worth attending? After having been a program or conference director for 7 major conferences and a few more minor ones, been a panelist and moderator at a number of sessions and given a few session presentations, I can speak from experience on where my own failings were. Here are 6 ways to improve conferences:
1) Ban panels altogether. Presentations can be so much more interesting and informative. Presenters almost always spend a lot of time on their presentations since they're out there on their own. Panelists never spend any time preparing however, even given the topic and potential questions. The TED conference is a terrific example of a presentation-only conference that really works.
2) Vet every presentation or panel. There has to be someone who can vet the presentation beforehand to make sure it's interesting. This can be easy these days since just about everyone who's capable of doing a high-level presentation also has the tools and skills required for a pre-conference presentation via the web. Vetting is much tougher for a panel, although the questions and direction can be gone over beforehand. The big problem here is the workload for the program director, who's usually only too happy just to have all the panelists, moderators and presenters confirmed a week before the show. The way around this is:
3) Fewer, but better, sessions per conference. Most conferences try to be all things to all people to draw more attendees. As a result you may have 2, 3 or even 4 sessions running simultaneously (like the recent Digital Hollywood), where you can be sure that at least some of the attendees are distressed because they can't be in 2 places at the same time. If there were only a single dynamite session in the time period that everyone could attend, it's better for all involved.
4) If you do employ a panel, it needs a great moderator. Not just a good moderator, a great moderator. Think Tavis Smiley or the late Tim Russert, or for those that are familiar with him from various conferences in the MET (media entertainment technology) space, Ken Rutkowski of METal. You need someone willing to challenge the panel, willing to take the conversation in a new direction, and willing to be provocative. Anything less and you slip back into the boring panel syndrome.
5) If you do employ a panel, have no more than 3 panelists. So many times a panel gets stacked with 4 or 5 panelists in order to appease a conference sponsor. While this is a concern, be aware that every panelists over 3 will usually diminish the success of the panel. It's too difficult to have a meaningful discussion. Try it yourself. Is it easier to have an intense conversation with 3 people or 5?
6) Q&A sessions can sometimes replace a panel discussion providing that the guest and moderator are both interesting. Some really great potential presenters are just not good at doing it themselves. They go from interesting and outgoing to bland and boring if they're the center of attention. But if they're interviewed they become themselves again - funny, interesting, thoughtful, even exciting. Once again, you need a great interviewer. Think Tavis Smiley or to a lesser degree, James Lipton (The Actor's Studio) - who may not be textbook great but is comfortable interviewing and usually has a great set of questions.
If the above suggestions were taken to heart by conference organizers, I'm sure we'd see more interesting and successful conferences. But there's a lot of extra work involved, and for that reason, I have my doubts that anyone will care. Most program directors aren't getting paid for the enormous amount of work they put into a conference, so the more they can lessen their burden and make their lives easier, the better they think it is. But if TED can do it, it is possible. Then again, maybe webinars are the future anyway.