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Conference 101 for speakers and panelists

5 min read


Conference panels can be dull and perfunctory, with everyone sticking to the script. At their worst, they can turn into lectures from on high. There was some of that at last week’s Milken Institute Global Conference, but there were many more genuine moments of clarity, insight and persuasive argument.

Many of the Global Conference’s panels are about solving problems — in areas including finance, health care and research, education, technology — and the policy implications that come with them. The panelists each have strong opinions about what to do, and so does most of the audience, for that matter. Making your point, then, is not just about facts but also about presentation and storytelling.

Here are a few lessons I witnessed:

Be prepared for your big idea — and be prepared to expand on it. Most of the panels at Milken are focused so there’s little excuse for seeming unprepared, unengaged or without ideas. Notable examples I saw of people being prepared included Bonin Bough of Mondelez International, who knew he would be asked during his panel about his company’s Super Bowl triumph with the Oreo brand. But he was also ready to talk about what he considers a disruptor, why he prefers to invest in people instead of technologies, and what the future of advertising is as it relates to mobile and location. These sessions only last an hour or so, though, so your ideas should be simple without being simplistic. Easier said than done, I know.

On the other hand, at a session titled “The Awesome Responsibility of Leadership,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., seemed to share an awesome desire to emerge from the discussion with the perception that they are nice fellows who will magically find agreement on thorny issues despite talking past each other for an hour. Legislation won’t be passed in a panel discussion, but panelists whose goal appears to be nothing but survival do not make for a panel worth attending.

Know what you don’t know. One small example of this was also found at Bough’s session. Among the panelists was Hootsuite CEO and college dropout Ryan Holmes, whose back story moderator Lisa Ling used to ask an open question on the value of college today, particularly for entrepreneurs and creative types. The panelists may have strong opinions on this, but they largely demurred rather than launch into a possibly ill-advised sidebar on something they are not expert in. Niall Ferguson they were not.

Be sparse on the slides and share your passion. In a session on K-12 teacher evaluation systems and national testing, slides were almost a necessity, as most of the panelists had data or a framework to introduce. But these panelists didn’t just read bullet points from the slide; they told stories that worked in conjunction with the slides, each bolstering the other. Ultimately, if you heard only the audio from that session, you’d have a pretty good idea about the passions of these educators, the challenges they face, the ideas they have and what needs to happen next.

The session I attended immediately after, on the future of pay-TV and content, featured executives whose ideas (and companies) would likely have not succeeded without a passion for trying something different. TiVo, DirecTV and Relativity Media are not the old boys club of content; they have been disruptors and must always be on the lookout for being disrupted themselves. While the companies might not agree on everything, their passion and openness led to a wide-ranging conversation that probably could have continued if time permitted.

Don’t be so passionate that you yell at the audience. Former Vice President Al Gore started his Tuesday night main event with poise and perspective, discussing how the political landscape has changed since he was in office, and particularly since he was in Congress. He wove details of technological change with their effects on political funding, discourse and how federally elected officials must now spend their time. Whether you agreed that the amount of money in politics is a problem, it was hard to disagree that he hadn’t provided an interesting analysis of how this came to be.

Then, on to his latest book, about the drivers of climate change. Gore began with telltale passion about the environment, swiftly moving through complicated ideas and data with short explanations of the book’s themes. But at some point, that passion turned into a several-minute-long yelling session — if I recall, mostly about how everyone’s dawdling is destroying the Earth. It was loud, a bit uncomfortable and took aim at much of the audience he was presumably trying to win over. He tried to recover, and perhaps the majority of the crowd thought he did. But that passion was not controlled, and the consequences could have been much worse.

These are basic tips — but then, again, the actual act of appearing at a conference or being on a panel is simple. It’s what you do with that opportunity that can become complex.