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Five Common Pitfalls For Conference Panels


Panels are some of the most popular sessions at many technical conferences. Getting a half-dozen opinionated, outspoken engineers to argue over a topic of interest to the conference attendees is clearly a good idea, and quite often it works as intended. I used to attend the International Test Conference (ITC), where the evening panels (with bottles of wine visibly being consumed by the panelists) drew audiences in the hundreds. 

But sometimes panels don't work as well as planned. I've organized, moderated, or spoken at a few dozen conference panels and attended many others. In my experience, panels that disappoint fall victim to one (or more) of the following pitfalls:

  • The panelists take so long to present their position statements/slides that there's not much time left for questions
  • There are few (or no) questions from the audience, so the moderator and the panel just end up talking to themselves
  • One or two panelists dominate the reponses, while other panelists barely say a word, and the moderator doesn't moderate
  • Every panelist responds to every question, which is tedious and reduces the number of questions that can be answered
  • Every panelist has the same point of view, so there's no real controversary or even interesting interchange among them

Last week at DVCon I helped organize a panel called "Mixing Formal Analysis with Simulation: Why, When, Where, and How?" I can't claim much credit for this event; the topic and the panelists were chosen by moderator Mike Stellfox and my colleague Steve Brown. I did introduce the panelists to each other and made sure that the microphones were in the right places. 

I thought that Mike and the panelists did a great job at completely avoiding the first four pitfalls. With seven panelists, I was expecially concerned about the first pitfall, but Mike wisely decided not to have them present slides and so everyone just gave a 2-3 minute introduction and position statement. There was a steady line of attendees waiting for their turn at the microphone to ask questions, only a few of the panelists replied to each question, and every panelist responded to at least a few questions.

The panel was not as controversial as some that I have organized or attended, but I think that there was enough difference of opinion on several points that the panelists didn't have a major problem with the last pitfall either. Being as objective as I can, I believe that this was a very successful panel with some good insights from some of the industry's leading figures in functional verification.

If you find yourself involved in a panel, I recommend keeping the five common pitfalls in mind. If you've observed other problems with panels, or have any thoughts on this topic, please comment. Thanks!

Tom A.

The truth is out there...sometimes it's in a blog 



By theASICguy on March 4, 2009
I agree Tom. The panel to which you are referring was one of the better run for all the reasons you mention. I would also say that the topic was interesting and relevant so it solicited lots of questions from the audience. If you consider that this was also the last session of the conference and people are usually fried by then, it was a real success.
As it turns out, I also headed a panel discussion at DVCon regarding Software-as-a-Service and Cloud Computing for EDA. Your colleague Joe Hupcey was there and I'd be interested in hearing what he thought. On the plus side. there was certainly lots of questions and discussion and there was a wide variety of views expressed. On the down side, I do think that a handful of the panel members did most of the speaking. Overall, I think I'd give it a B grade, which is not bad since this was the first panel discussion I ever organized.

By Gaurav Jalan on March 4, 2009
Can you please share a summary of the discussion on the panel topic - "Mixing Formal Analysis with Simulation: Why, When, Where, and How?"

By tomacadence on March 5, 2009
Harry, thanks for the nice comments. Sorry that I missed your panel; I was ping-ponging back and forth between Cadence and the DoubleTree all during DVCon so I wasn't able to see every session that I wanted.
Gaurav, I was focusing on the logistics for my panel so I didn't take detailed notes, but I will post a follow-up blog entry with the key points I remember from the panelists.
Tom A.

By KarenB on March 9, 2009
Tom, I wanted to tell you that I thought the panel you organized for DVCon was excellent. The topic was obviously valuable to the audience, the speakers were trusted sources, and the queue of audience members waiting to ask questions was impressive.
Having organized panels myself, I know the amount of work it takes. And I also know that the best panels have the best organizers. Congratulations!

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