So on pretty short notice, Arzumy managed to whip together a very successful, interesting CTO Summit – https://kl.cto.my/.
I helped him a little with the direction (Herding cats..) and the schedule and invited a few people, he asked me to speak but I didn’t feel I had enough to share yet – but I would be fine to moderate/host the panel discussion. A bunch of stuff techies don’t really talk about haha – and honestly it’s the hard stuff. The technical issues, there are plenty of meetups for those, StackOverflow answers, documentation, wikis and so on.
For the human issues? Not so much.
In this summit, we will focus on hiring, firing, retention, and culture. We’ll get to share with our peers about scaling up the team. How to remove obstacles? What’s the best way to manage conflicts? Generally on how to run a world-class engineering team.
Of course I seized my first opportunity to moderate a tech panel! I’ve been on a few panels before and watched plenty of streams/videos, so I had a reasonable idea what to do, but I did a bit more research on how to make it good – which is what I’ll share (and my experience) here.
So yah, here’s me hosting my first panel.
An ideal panel format is around 45 minutes to one hour and contains 5-6 members, plus a moderator/host. You can do 45 minutes with 15 minutes for questions, but it’s better if you for audience engagement from the start and do a full 60 minutes with input from the audience in every segment rather than separating it out.
I prefer a more open format (not behind a desk/table please), and moderator in the middle, with panelists at either side slightly facing each other. Remember this is supposed to be a discussion, so make the physical space contribute to that – manage the lighting, temperature, seating etc.
Provide water for the panelists if you can (or beer haha). Have a mic for everyone if you can.
Forget the slides, put a backdrop slide with the title of the topic, but IMHO don’t make slides and don’t allow participants to use slides either. You want it to be as ad hoc (but guided) as possible, slides tend to make things a bit staged/rehearsed and can take away the magic from a good discussion.
Choosing The Panelists
Choose people with opinions, and preferably those who can articulate them well. Be careful not to choose an accidentally biased panel, there’s not much more boring than a panel where everyone agrees on everything that is being discussed.
It’s supposed to be a discussion, including contrarian points, differing opinions and so on. That’s why my first choice is someone like Aaron Chipper, who’s both an arse and immensely experienced.
One way I’ve seen it put, is invite ‘DEEP’ panelists:
- Diverse. Make sure the panel represents the demographic of the audience while ensuring a diversity of opinion and thoughts. A group that is in complete agreement can make a discussion boring.
- Expertise. Invite a recognized authority or thought leader in the industry who possesses strong credentials. That person must establish credibility with the audience quickly via a biography or a 30-second introduction.
- Eloquent. Panelists should be good conversationalists. Do they speak well on the phone? Did your interview with them produce a monologue or a discussion? Review video footage of your potential panelists to make sure they can keep the audience engaged and interested.
- Prepared. Panelists must be willing to make a few key points and tell stories that illustrate those points. Preparation makes the difference between a mediocre panel and an amazing one.
If you have good panelists, you’ll have a good panel.
As for preparation – as the host you should probably be doing the most, prime your panelists on the topic at a general level, but not with specifics like the questions you are going to ask.
Don’t spend any time with them as a group before the panel either, or you risk having the discussion you’re supposed to have before the panel begins and ruining the dynamics of the conversation and end up with everyone agreeing on stage (I’ve seen this happen).
Have some tough questions on hand if you can, something that create a bit of controversy, have some interesting stats or facts to set context for the audience and prepare your opening statement and introductions for each panelist.
Keep introductions short, 2 sentences per person and DO NOT let panelists introduce themselves. Also keep your opening spiel short, a couple of sentences is again enough just to set the context of the conversation.
Know as much as you can about the panelists and the topic at hand though, it will help you lead the discussion and prompt the right people to follow on points they know more about.
So after all that, hosting is probably the easiest part haha – well apart from the closing..that’s definitely the easiest.
Bring the panelists on one by one, introduce them, seat them and thank them for taking part. Into yourself briefly, and do your opening statement/set the topic for the discussion then move straight into it.
Some people like to break it into 3 roughly equal (15-20) minute segments which are basically:
- 30,000ft Overview (Macro view or strategic level)
- Specifics (Detailed tactical)
- Audience Participation/Q&A
And whilst I find this interesting in theory, I think it’s kind of hard in practise as the discussion pretty much takes a life of it’s own once it starts and you just become an enabler. Which is a good point to, don’t stick to the script – remember this is a discussion so let it grow, keep it in control and enjoy it!
One of the main jobs (hence the moderation moniker) is to keep people on track and prevent them from going too far down the rabbit hole, if someone is going off on a tangent (or too deep on a point), politely but firmly pull them back and lead the discussion back on track by perhaps getting someone else to add a point.
Also don’t go too far down the same line of questioning, not every panelist has to answer every question – mix it up a bit and keep the pace lively/varied.
Get the audience involved as soon as possible, if you are asking the panelists pointed questions open the same questions to the floor and let people chip in (obviously depending on your audience). I went for this approach as everyone who attended was a CTO level person so everyone should have something to contribute.
Obviously when the audience is not on the same experience/expertise level as the panel, you might want to keep the questions to the end as they probably won’t be as valuable as the panel discussion itself.
Be positive, compliment your panelists and the audience – don’t be critical/negative to get a laugh. Remember you’re there to support/enable to the panelists – never contradict a panelist even if you’re 100% sure they are wrong.
A hard one for me was, don’t be a panelist! Haha, because I have plenty to add to the topic too – but that wasn’t my place as I was there to moderate and enable, not to take over the discussion.
Make sure you have someone helping you keep time, I didn’t really bother about the segments so I just had someone give me 10 minutes remaining, 5 minutes and 1 minute so I knew to start winding up, to lock it down then with 1 minute left to close it.
I think asking panelists for closing thoughts are trite, so I didn’t bother with that. Just wrap it up, if you can give a brief summary of what was discussed and any super salient points that came out of the discussion.
Ideally the discussion won’t end here, audience members will want to chat with panelists and hopefully whatever you have setup should allow for that.
Thank the panelists by name for their contributions, thank the audience for listening and/or taking part and anyone else you wanna thank (organiser, venue host etc).
And that’s it, you’re done – congrats!