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« Viewing the future | Main | Rationale or rationalization? »

10 Commandments of Panel Discussions


Is it time for the panel discussion format of conference sessions to get some guidelines?

I commented a couple days ago:

Most abused session format
The panel. As both perp and victim of several panels this conference, I am convinced there need to be some guidelines. Too many talking heads pontificating ad hoc, ad nauseum, off-topic. There must be a better way. Ideas? I need to think more about this.

I may have been a little harsh here. I did enjoy the panels I saw and participated in. I just think they could have been so much better with a few little enforced rules. Anyway here's how my thinking goes so far...

10 Commandments of Panel Discussions

For conveners:

I. Thou shalt limit the session to a single question about a topic pertinent to the targeted attendees.

II. Thou shalt limit the number of panelists to not more than one per 15 minutes of presentation time allotted. For the math challenged, that means no more than four panelists per hour of session.

III. Thou shalt select panelists based on diversity of view, opinion and experience. Invite an outsider looking in, now and then.

IV. Thou shalt plan for at least one-half of allotted time for discussion based on attendee questions.It is a panel discussion, not sequential lectures, after all.

V. Thou shalt have a moderator who actually moderates - enforcing time limits and keeping panelists on topic. An electric cattle prod brandished now and then is advised.

For participants

VI. Thou shalt stay on topic. Period.

VII. Unless given a longer time to make opening remarks, thou shalt limit thy responses to less than three minutes per response. Wear a damn watch.

VIII. Thou shalt show the participants and fellow panelists respect by speaking directly to the question.

IX. Thou shalt not talk again until each panelist has replied. Heated back-and-forth dialogs are the exception.

X. Thou shalt understand and keep holy the right to remain silent on topics about which thou knows diddly-squat. As Honest Abe once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

OK, folks, add your own!

Ric Murray offered in a comment what I believe is an outstanding alternative to panel discussions:

I have an idea for a different approach to panels that I would like to see... The TED Talk format of giving people 15 minutes to "do their thing." It could be scheduled (but yuck). My idea would be for presenters to sign up before the conference (as they do if the want to present a "real" session). The difference would be, first-come-first-served would fill the schedule. A room could be set aside for the length of the conference. This also might meet your 10 minutes or walk criteria.

I keep reading Tweets, blogs, and getting the impression that many attendees learn more from the hallway conversations. This would be like bringing the hallway into a room. You might even find great speakers who aren't the "big names." How democratic, huh?

Cool, huh? I am forwarding this to the ISTE Powers-That-Be.



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Reader Comments (9)

Wow. Thanks for the "attaboy."

I like Commandment III the best. There is no way that we all believe the same things about EdTech. We've "cheerleaded" enough. Let's start choosing up sides and battle this issues out.

Miguel Guhlin had a great post yesterday that showed there is a difference of opinion about "citizen journalism" blogging -

If there is a difference of thought with blogging, imagine what difference we have about teaching.


July 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRic Murry

What about "Thou shalt not self-congratulate nor shalt thou overly admire thy panel peers"?

I went to a panel discussion at ALA where that happened all too often!

July 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLazygal

Even the worst panel session likely would have captured our attention better than the kind of keynote that forced us both into nodding off.

It was great to chat with you at NECC,


July 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Draper


I was a panel member - and since this was my first NECC, I really had no idea of what to expect.

Our presentation went well, I believe, but I understand the "talking heads" general criticism.

Perhaps some type of learning stations, presentations within presentations might work? Or a themed room (not as overwhelming as a full-blown exhibition space) set up with exhibit tables, demos, and interaction like a school science fair?

There must be a more collaborative way to share our knowledge. Maybe your posting will elicit some concrete suggestions for next year.

July 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdiane

The panel that sticks out most to me from NECC 2008 which included a well known educator and consultant. It consisted of a constant sales pitch including the aforementioned educator describing his creds ad nauseum. So, I'm all for "Thou shalt not self-congratulate nor shalt thou overly admire thy panel peers"? This also violated commandment III.

I think a powerful feature to add to the NECC conference planner would be session reviews and comments that would carry forward to the next conference (either tied by being the same topic, or tied to each speaker.) Dang ... glad this was not a panel as I just violated commandment VI.

July 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Thanks for the post Doug, I believe that the weaknesses you identify are universal ... or at least also exist in the ict and educational edu_conference landscapes in New Zealand ... we have even had conference debates where the speakers fail to engage with the topic and the argument preferring to shamelessly self promote.

Sometimes the problem lies more with the topic question for the panel discussion than the panelists

...the only panel discussion I ever enjoyed was one where we asked a panel of educators, parents, academics and students to engage with what they thoiught was "powerful learning" and "learning powerfully" for gifted students in New Zealand ... we repeated the question with different panels at repeat conferences in three different cities in New Zealand and each time got intriguingly interesting stuff ...

July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterArtichoke

@ Ric. I really thought your suggestion was a good one.



I agree unless the adulation is directed at me. ;-)


@ Darren,

And what keynote would that have been? (Be sure to fill out the NECC online eval - I get the feeling you will leave the same comment I did.)

Good meeting you as well,


@ Diane,

I loved the Librarians 2.5 panel. There were just too many panelists for the time allowed, but I couldn't suggest a single person I didn't want to hear! DISCUSSION would have really enriched the experience.

I believe the poster sessions are much like what you call "learning stations" or could be made into them.

Really nice to meet you and look forward to future presentations/panels from you!


@ Ryan,

Great idea about comments (user reviews) carrying forward via planner. I'll suggest this to the ISTE people.


@ Ms Artichoke,

Interesting twist on the panel. The essential question is important. I love it when kids are on panels. We hear their voices too seldom.

Say, my 22 year old son is moving to NZ to work for 6-18 months. Are you available for baby-sitting?

All the best,


July 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

As we move to a wider collaborative community through the use of online tools it bears investigation into how can we develop a format that involves the collective wisdom, but does so in ways that keep the goal of the panel session relevant, targeted and meaningful.

I've seen time devoted to small group targeted discussions often work, as they provide the opportunity to reflect on panel topics.

July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Sanders


Good ideas.

There was a wiki set up for one of the panels I was on that went untended by we panelists. There is always a time factor involved. I sometimes think the reason panels are so popular is that they can require so little preparation!

Thanks for the comment and all the best,


July 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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