Conference rage and why we need a war on panels

Today’s post definitely merits a vlog – apologies for quality (must get a decent camera)

With the occasional exception (see yesterday’s post on Piketty), my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair

Money well spent?
Money well spent?

and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, usually not on topic. The chairs who abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. I end up dozing off, or furiously scribbling abuse in my notebook as a form of therapy, and hoping my neighbours can’t see what I’m writing. I probably look a bit unhinged…..

This matters both because of the lost opportunity that badly run conferences represent, and because they cost money and time. I guess if it was easy to fix, people would have done so already, but the format is tired and unproductive – how can we shake it up?

Recognise this?
Recognise this?

Some random thoughts and suggestions to get the ball rolling:

Conferences frequently discuss evidence and results. So where are the evidence and results for the efficacy of conferences? Given the resources being ploughed into research on development (DFID alone spends about £350m a year), surely it would be a worthwhile investment (if it hasn’t already been done) to sponsor a research programme that runs multiple parallel experiments with different event formats, and compares the results in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event etc? At the very least, can they find or commission a systematic review on what the existing evidence says?

Feedback systems could really help: A public eBay-type ratings system to rank speakers/conferences would provide nice examples of good practice for people to draw on (and bad practice to avoid). Or why not go realtime and encourage instant audience feedback? OK,  maybe Occupy-style thumbs up from the audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t would be a bit in-your-face for academe, but why not introduce a twitterwall to encourage the audience to interact with the speaker (perhaps with moderation to stop people testing the limits, as my LSE students did to Owen Barder last term)?

How did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? People reading out papers; terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words, or illegible graphics. Please, can we try other formats, like speed dating (eg 10 people pitch their work for 2 minutes each, then each goes to a table and the audience hooks up (intellectually, I mean) with the ones they were interested in); world cafes; simulation games; joint tasks (eg come up with an infographic that explains X). Anything, really. Yes ‘manels’ (male only panels – take the pledge here) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?

We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference. If it’s building networks,

Take the pledge, dudes
Take the pledge, dudes

making new links etc, then you need to maximise the interaction time – speed-dating, lots of coffee breaks etc. If it’s to jointly progress thinking on a particular issue, then use a workshop methodology, like the excellent USAID/IDS seminar I attended a few months ago (whose results I’m still using). If it’s to pick apart and improve methods and findings, then it has to be at first draft stage, and with the right combination of academics and practitioners in the room. But if the best you can manage is ‘disseminating new research’ of ‘information sharing’, alarm bells should probably ring.

Resource it: Organizing good conferences requires expertise and time. It’s not something an overburdened academic should be doing at 1am, after the kids are in bed, and the emails are done. Weirdly, friends tell me that there is often no budget for conferences. But doing them on the cheap is a false economy, if all the people who end up the room wish they were dead/get nothing out of it. So research funders should demand a sensible conference budget in any proposal, and outside particular research projects, academic institutions should fund conferences seriously as places where networking can incubate new ideas and refine old ones.

And why should academics be organizing them anyway? Isn’t there a case for outsourcing more of them to good good conference organizers who ‘get’ the special challenges of academic (rather than, say, corporate) events?

Anyone read this?
Anyone read this?

With my How Change Happens hat on, the obvious question is, why haven’t things changed already? Using the handy 3i rule of thumb, is it ideas, institutions or interests that are keeping things this way?

Ideas: maybe people genuinely think this format is the best possible, or just lack imagination – how do we undermine that view and get recognition of alternatives?

Institutions: is part of the reason for the leaden, top-down formats that organizers want to control the agenda, pump out their own material etc? Does everyone need to be on a platform, with at least 20 minutes to talk about themselves or their interests? If so, very hard to get away from panelism.

Interests: Academics have to write papers for career advancement and to feed the REF beast. But does that really mean they have to present and discuss them in such a mind-numbing way?

Finally, allow me one unconstructive suggestion: can we please as standard have a clock above the platform that not only records the time, (for the benefit of the chair), but the cumulative cost of the day, based on a rough estimate of the hourly salaries of those in the room (we could base it on this meeting cost calculator)? Perhaps the IT wallahs could also come up with a way of monitoring the number of people who are not actually in the room in any useful sense, because they are on email/twitter/Facebook/doing their online shopping?

And in case you think I’m picking unfairly on academics, corporate, NGO and thinktank conferences are all usually awful, in their different ways (thanks Tolstoy)

Rant over, reactions please, including top tips for how to organize good conferences on negligible time/money. See some previous cathartic post-conference posts on epistemic communities and an even more prolonged purgatory in Delhi.

Update: whenever I think I’ve said something vaguely interesting, it usually turns out Kevin Watkins or Geoff Mulgan have got there before me. In this case it’s Geoff, with a great paper on Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

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36 Responses to “Conference rage and why we need a war on panels”
  1. Alice

    Entirely agree. I rarely learn anything new at conferences. Panels are often dull and a frustrating waste of time.

    I think this flawed, unsatisfying and untested models persists due to ideas: unquestioned acceptance of the status quo. We do it because it’s always been that way.

    I think dullness can be reduced by more participatory presentations. Eg. I present data, suggest four hypotheses, ask the audience to vote on which they consider most plausible, pick on a couple of people to explain their views. Then I present my own explanation. As Plutarch said, “lecturing isn’t about filling buckets but lighting fires”. I think the key is not to see the audience as passive sponges soaking up information. That’s a terrible terrible mode.

    But even if panels are rubbish, conferences are still useful – for the networking. Meeting people in your field, sharing ideas, solidifying relationships with people who then offer to read your paper or suggest pertinent literature.

    See… classic politics of development answer, the rubbish panels are just a facade, behind which the magic happens!

  2. Good rant! This post reminded me of this other one written by Enrique Mendizabal, on He makes the point that you don’t need to spend fortunes. Tips and suggestions:
    – Assume you do not have any cash to spend
    – Get the argument first; then the speakers
    – Do not forget about the moderator
    – The audience is more important than the speakers/panelists
    – An event brings everything together; and is a great launching pad for more
    – A series is better than a single event
    – One more idea: you do not have to be the centre of attention

  3. Ellie

    Building on Clara’s points, I used to love the Intelligence Squared debates’ format: set a motion, three (dreaded) panelists argue for, and three against, the motion for exactly two minutes, then over to audience questions for 30 minutes. Before the debate the audience votes on wether they agree or disagree with the motion, and then vote again at the end. The moderator announces after the Q&A if the vote has changed – ie, if one set of arguments has changed people’s minds. It makes it fun.

    I’ve used this format in the development sphere to kick-start some debate and interest at a day long event: it’s all done within an hour, so there’s plenty of time for the regular conference stuff afterwards….

    In my experience though in the development sphere, dull panels and panelist ‘speeches’ are going to take time to move away from: culturally it can be really difficult to expect someone unused to public speaking and being questioned and challenged, to hold their own. And making a person look uninformed or ridiculous in public is obviously self-defeating. I’ve spent much of my time outside Europe encouraging colleagues to just speak up, as well as to (respectfully) challenge others’ views and provide constructive criticism. Rather like encouraging active citizens!

    • Duncan Green

      Good point Ellie, what we don’t want to do is replace panels with a much more daunting set of public performances that demand even higher levels of confidence and willingness to speak/argue in public. No prizes for guessing what gender implications of that are likely to be.

  4. Paul Harvey

    I’m just back from the World Humanitarian Summit where the side events were full of dire panels (ours excepted of course) made worse by the fact that the organisers had asked people to combine panels, mostly achieved by just doubling the number of speakers. It had me wondering about an alternative format where you distribute a 2 page paper beforehand (or just give people 10 minutes to read it at the start) and then open up for points and comments from the floor for a good 45 minutes or so. The 2 or 3 speakers then get 15 minutes at the end to respond.

  5. Isobel McConnan

    Following on these thoughts, what if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter. What if organisers see themselves as hosts, inviting people into a welcoming and hospitable space? As a facilitator, I have to constantly remind event hosts that thinking it through, getting people interested ahead of time and good preparation is an essential investment of time. It was wonderful to see climate and other academics in an event I co-designed a couple of months working across disciplines giving 2 min snapshots of what’s inspiring about their work and then talking and networking. After that there was no stopping them!

  6. Athayde Motta

    I attended, and presented, in a major academic conference once some 25 years ago. It was the first and last of the kind I went to in Brazil. On the NGO side, I pay not to go to any conference-like event, specially if the “methodology” is to incarcerate people in far away locations so that you can be “immersed” in the discussion. If it’s not Bellaggio, I’m out. The greener the place, the more annoyed I get. Changing these conferences should be a global movement cause it’s usually bad wherever you go.

  7. Helen Schneider

    I feel your pain! Mercifully have recently been to a couple of really good events at DICE (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology): one on wildlife trade and effects on livelihoods/communities and the other on human-wildlife co-existence. In both cases I was reflecting on what made them different from the kind of conferences you mention, especially given that in terms of physical space, general format and participants they were very conventional (lecture theatres at University of Kent; plenary papers with a few break-out groups/workshops; lots of academics). I can only conclude that it was a mixture of:
    *topics/issues of genuine interest to the participants, including a fair bit of controversial stuff
    *speakers who could speak conversationally and passionately about their research while still presenting rigorous data, testing hypotheses etc
    *lots of (young) enthusiastic postgrads in the audience (refreshing for us old hacks)
    *neither students or other academic participants seemed to be interested in grandstanding, showing off with their questions/comment – they seemed genuinely interested in asking questions to learn more
    *and, sadly only in 1 of the 2 events, the posters were all around the coffee/lunch areas and there was an opportunity to vote on your favourite which meant people actually read them
    *something akin to magic mushrooms sneaked into the wild foraged food and drink?

  8. Absolutely! Although it makes one wonder why such an obviously ineffective approach still persists. If presenters really need to have Powerpoint as a crutch to present their work (and sometimes it might be the best option) then using Ignite style talks might be a good way to liven things up i.e. 5 minute presentation, 20 slides one main idea per slide. Here’s a similar blog post with a few suggestions on conferences that I wrote a couple of years ago – in UNICEF we also recently developed a “Knowledge Exchange Toolbox” which has step by step instructions on a few different methodologies for organizing meaningful meetings for the purposes of sharing knowledge or engaging discussion

  9. I am largely in agreement and in particular about investing in the organising. I am a very good conference organiser and would love to help academic organisations, donors, etc. organise events that are meaningful, engaging and inclusive but they don’t have a budget and/or don’t recognise it as a skill that merits spending any money on so they give it to people who don’t have the time or energy to devote to it and who spend the majority of their time complaining about how awful it is to organise conferences. If you keep on doing what you’ve always done…

    Duncan, the picture quality is an issue but mainly it’s the sound that’s a problem

  10. Mimi

    Why don’t they change you ask. Because most people who work for NGOs and development organisations spend a most of their working life trying to make their jobs seem more complicated and important than they really are. Trying to organise a conference is more an exercise in carefully handling and massaging the egos of the speakers, donors and conference organisers rather than in planning the best possible outcomes and experiences for the participants.

  11. Julian Peach

    There are far too many clever people working in development; lots of degrees but little practical experience. Conferences and similar events are great for those that have speech as their main strength. One can learn and network online very easily and affordably.

  12. Prem

    Sometimes you feel it is only the organisers, the venue hotels and related folk who profit from conferences. It is just a jambooree! For the kind of money spent, I think you could do a hell of a lot of other things!!

  13. Terrible conferences are a problem everywhere. We have been thinking, and trying, for a while how to change that in our sector. But there seem to be too many problems to solve at once. (1) Lack of skill in organising conferences, and lack of recognition that it’s a skill, is a problem, though skills can be learned, and awareness can be raised, and at least everyone agrees that conferences suck. (2) Complaining is so easy. At least in our space, complaints about terrible conferences and awful panels are aplenty, but nobody tries hard enough to do it differently. Being outright nasty about any event has become a fashion statement. But that only happens live and face-to-face, and very rarely in public. (3) Conferences are painted like the greatest success ever online. Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are awash with enthusiastic statements. Already when you carefully look at the photos that come with the tweets you can often see the façade. But who does, and who calls it out? (4) Governmental culture and civil society culture are both hard enough to change on their own, but where they meet and intersect, in development conferences for example, they seem to fall back on an assumed lowest common denominator that makes conferences even more terrible than they already are anyway. (5) So many of the touted alternative approaches seem almost like a religion. TED, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry – these are cults. Nobody seems to treat conference organising as what it should be: a profession, with many tools, approaches, rather than a one-model-fits-best competition.

    In other words: I am a little at a loss about what to do about this madness.

    • Wayan

      Or get crazy and ban Powerpoint altogether. That gets people back to really talking about the issues vs. reading slides, or thinking too much about visuals and not enough about oratory.

  14. Gareth Price-Jones

    Its a difficult one to push back against though – an exciting initial plan for a World Humanitarian Summit side event, which involved multiple small group discussions between local women’s groups and power-holders at the global level morphed into a panel session so scripted that even most of the questions from the floor were pre-booked. What caused this? A shortage of time, an unwillingness to try something new, a focus on speaking rather than listening, and a fairly high level of organisational flag-waving – ‘we have to have our man/woman on the stage’. The one redeeming feature of these discussions is when there is time for small follow up discussions afterwards over coffee – if the panels are seen as an intro for those, then they have much more value (though this suggests a need to shift the balance of time allocation from the panels to the coffee breaks afterwards)

    I’m pleased to say that at CARE we have signed the ‘no Manels’ pledge, and have turned down high-level opportunities on that basis.

    • Wayan

      I think the “fairly high level of organisational flag-waving” is the real issue. Orgs what their person on stage and then them to talk just about the org or its project, and nothing about the process, learning, or experiences that others can learn from. What could be great peer learning becomes an advertisement from bad advertisers.

  15. Nicholas Colloff

    I have only ever attended three conferences I have enjoyed and thinking what connected them I realized that (a) they had the highest proportion of unstructured social time and (b) they all required you to sing together (which was unexpected, hugely enjoyable and bonding). So have singing development workers down the bar would appear to be a winning formula…

  16. Wayan


    I’ve found the best way to change the status quo, is to change the status quo.

    The usual Death-by-Panel, or worse, Death-by-PowerPoint is the very reason I started Technology Salons and they’ve spread to monthly events in 12 cities around the world. We dispense with the crap aspects and kept just the good bits:

    I also do 1 and 2-day events, which also reject the usual approaches. They are very participant driven in topics, but have nice long networking breaks and a laser-focus on time management.

    You should really come to a Tech Salon or one of my other events. A refreshing change for sure.

  17. Wayan

    I really like the point about the money wasted ticker. I always design events with the conscious math in my head of participants x time x billable rate = the opportunity cost I’m asking from everyone to attend.

  18. Ben

    Great rant. I particularly endorse the more participatory and experiential ways of learning. I’ve developed and run simulations on the refugee experience, climate resilience and even tax havens at our conferences and they go down really well.

  19. Alexandra Lamb

    Totally agree! One great idea I saw used by a facilitator was: he introduced each speaker with a song, with an accompanying video clip that he felt represented them well (showed about 20 seconds); then as soon as their speaking time was up he would blast the song. It didn’t just keep them within heir time limits – it created a much more energetic and open vibe in the room. I think good ingrediants are: music to get energy flowing and disruptive speakers to get more conversation flowing

  20. Anti Power-Point Party is the 7th biggest party in Switzerland . Soon, we may have referendum against PPT! PPT is part of a problem that Duncan eloquently outlined.

    There are many reasons for pessimism. Inertia is very powerful. Conferences are about representation as much as about effective discussion. Organisations justify their existence via events. In the UN conferences are ‘success’ and ‘outstanding success’. Social media creates additional spin, etc.

    We are also in search for a potential formula for more effective and inclusive events. Recently, we organised Geneva Engage conference aimed at opening thousand of events in Geneva (more than 15.000) with communities worldwide. Health, development, trade, Internet, human rights and many other issues addressed in Geneva are of direct relevance for communities worldwide. Our illustrator visualised this challenge in the following way:

    One useful outcome of Geneva Engage conference was ‘menu for e-participation’:

  21. Thanks for the post Duncan. My simple answer would be: Open Space Technology. A time-tested format to let self-organization reap its full potential. It first started some 40 years ago by Harrison Owen exactly out of a frustration he had over organizing a global conference for two years in a row and getting perplexing reviews. He noticed, in the feedback forms, that the only thing participants truly enjoyed were the coffee breaks. Why? Because they could connect to people in more informal ways, network, and truly share ideas without a rigid structure getting too much in the way.
    Tell me if you ever need a facilitator who can host such a format and I’d be happy to come and facilitate.

  22. Judith

    Fascinating discussion. As an academic whose research interest is conferences this is all great info for me! I’m sure none of you will be surprised to learn that research has demonstrated that social and networking opportunities are consistently rated as key reasons for attending conferences…I love the idea of an experimental design where similar info is shared in different ways, then people’s views were gathered – on what they learned, whether they found it engaging or not etc.

  23. Couldn’t agree more. It is remarkable fact that dozens of smart and well-resourced people can combine for almost no result, and this includes the think tanks every bit as much as academic institutions.

    That said, it’s well within our power to do it differently. The costs of organising and mobilising have dropped remarkably, with the result that a peer-led ad hoc model is very doable. I run groups with 8-10 practitioners in round table format (imaginatively entitled London Conflict / Fragility) for under £80 a pop; think one could test the other models you describe for not much more.

    Perhaps go for a lean, quick version rather than waiting on DFID research timelines??

  24. I agree that most conferences are dead boring. But what I have remarked in my travels is that there is a strong performative element to conferences and presentations that is hard to get around or beyond. In some contexts, the expectations of presenters, particularly if they are more senior officials or academics, is that they deserve to have a platform and be heard regardless of the value of what they have to say (or how uninspiringly they say it). The crazy thing is, many people sit there and passively accept this. I think this speaks to a larger issue: it would be considered impolite or disrespectful to voice boredom or discontent. If anyone has suggestions for how to organize invigorating events that still allow for the recognition that some people seem to expect or crave (and that some cultural contexts demand), that would be useful. We cannot expect all conversations to unfold like a TED talk, nor can we assume that interesting new meeting formats will work in every context.

  25. I’ve been to many conferences myself and it’s pretty much always death by powerpoint. Another issue for me is the content over form – fantastic content, delivered in a less engaging manner. My company runs an antipode to conferences…a festival of a sort, called Learnfest. It’s once a year, for three days and the concept behind it was to turn conference design on its head – allow people the choice to design their own festival experience, engage with each other and learn by doing. It’s by far the coolest conference I’ve ever been to and proud to help run it.

  26. Re “. Or why not go realtime and encourage instant audience feedback?” e.g. by using servces like Mentimeter, to get AND SHARE instant feedback on issues being discussed. is there a useful review of such serices that we could look at

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