Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

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Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.

Captions are good for panels, not just photos

LAS VEGAS–I am here once again for yet another conference, this time Tech Cocktail’s Celebrate. Some of the discussions here ranged a bit afield of my own consumer-tech focus, but It’s been a pretty good event overall–including my turn in the spotlight this morning, when I interviewed SmartThings founder Jeff Hagins about the future of smart homes and the “Internet of Things.”

Tech Cocktail Celebrate panelIn one respect, however, Celebrate has clearly outdone other conferences I’ve spoken at or attended. During every session here, the screen behind the stage has displayed these data points:

  1. each panelist’s name;
  2. each panelist’s photo;
  3. each panelist’s Twitter handle;
  4. the above presented in the order in which they’re seated onstage.

Conference organizers, won’t you please go and do likewise?

I hate having to hit Google to confirm who said which quotable quip, especially in the too-frequent cases when the panel is all or mostly white dudes. (Note: In those situations, the organizers should address their diversity issues first, then tackle their presentation.) Having to lean on Twitter’s clumsy search to look up people’s handles–it’s basic etiquette to mention somebody in a tweet about them, their company, or their product–amuses me even less.

Make it clear who’s talking and how to identify them when I tweet about the panel, and I can focus on taking notes and sharing them. And when I happen to be on the panel and check my phone for Twitter mentions (don’t judge…), I can be more confident that I’m not missing any backchannel banter about my performance.

While you’re doing that, event planners, don’t forget to consult my advice about conference-badge design.

(Disclosure: I’ve known Tech Cocktail founders Frank Gruber and Jen Consalvo since at least 2009, long enough for them to move from “people I deal with for work” to “people I enjoy talking to outside of work.”)

Help improve my SXSW panel: Why doesn’t Congress grok the Internet?

My SXSW suckup was not in vain, even if it wasn’t efficient either. After a prolonged round of back-and-forth with the conference’s management, including one outright swap of topics, my panel on “Why Doesn’t Congress Grok the Internet?” is scheduled for 3:30-4:30 this Saturday afternoon in Austin.

The theme is pretty straightforward: Sixteen years after the Communications Decency Act, Congress still comes damn close to passing tech-policy legislation almost as boneheaded as that bill; what gives?

I’ll be discussing that topic with two staffers for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): Jayme White, staff director of the Senate Committee on Finance’s Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness subcommittee and senior tech advisor to Wyden; and Jennifer Hoelzer, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the senator. Both worked on Wyden’s successful opposition to the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts.

I don’t intend for this panel to be a “Congress sucks” beatdown, as fun as that might be. I want to get into the institutional, political and economic factors that lead to tech-ignorant bills appearing as often as they do. Here are some of the questions I have in mind:

  • The stereotype of Congressional knowledge of the Internet is Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes” monologue. Is that a fair perception these days?
  • Looking at the relative influences of the entertainment and tech industries in Washington, how much of a difference can that make on a relatively obscure tech-policy bill? What about one that’s become a headline item?
  • Describe the feedback your boss’s constituents typically provide about tech-policy issues. How often do they bring up the subject at all?
  • How much does the need to raise campaign funds from people who may have intense interests in these matters tilt the legislative process?
  • How would you grade the traditional media’s coverage of recent tech-policy disputes? Has it been part of the problem or part of the solution?
  • What sort of input did your office get from entertainment and tech-industry types, respectively, in the run-up to SOPA?
  • The revolving door is a reality on Capitol Hill (and, I should note, in many newsrooms). How much can the prospect of more profitable employment in private industry weigh on a staffer’s conduct? Among your former colleagues who worked on tech policy on the Hill, where did most of them end up?
  • Did the way Hollywood got rolled on SOPA and PIPA represent a fundamental change in these debates, or was it the product of good timing and good luck?

Now it’s your turn: What questions would you add to that list? Would you strike any of those above?