Sitting on Panels

Last night I spoke on a panel at UCLA for the German American Business Association (GABA) talking about the state of monetization in the online video market.   The truth is that I hate attending panel discussions (although I enjoy speaking on them).  I have ADD and I can’t easily sit through people mindlessly promoting their companies and not giving out relevant information.  officepanel1I can usually tolerate sitting on panels because if I’m bored I can just say something controversial to stir the cat amongst the pigeons so it can be a bit of fun.  I learned this technique while living in the UK where controversy on panel discussions is expected and is the norm.

Last night I reached new heights of irritation.  One of my fellow panelists (unnamed and not in the picture attached) was spewing crap about how great of an opportunity there is for young independent UGC film producers to create meaningful and profitable videos online – and particularly on mobile.  It was his patronizing and self promotional BS that annoyed me more than the actual content, which I simply felt wasn’t accurate.

Eventually I called bullshit (or as my good friend Steve Raymond pointed out with a Tweet – I called “bollocks”) and a not very pleasant discussion ensued.  His first assertion was that the Real Housewives of Orange County wasn’t appealing to viewers whereas online UGC is much higher quality so eventually people will stop watching RH of OC because it is valueless.  Not that I’m a fan, but the season finale was seen by 2 million viewers (see here) and RH of NYC by 1.6 million.  They garner serious ad dollars and I’m sure more in one episode than this guy did in a month (maybe even year).

The second assertion that Britain Has Talent is making a lot more money these days from US viewers due to Susan Boyle’s appearance on YouTube eventually lured me in to calling “bollocks” false claims and asking him to stick to facts.  Hopefully it at least added levity to the crowd and given the number of people who thanked me after the panel I realized that either people also found him annoying (or they wanted to curry favor with a VC?).  Maybe both.

So with this grievance fresh on my mind I thought I’d share my views for sitting on a panel (or speaking at a conference)

1. Treat this as an “Earned Media” opportunity – Don’t use it as a way to over promote your business. Unfortunately most panelists drone on endlessly about their company and how great they’re doing.  98% of the audience didn’t come to the event to hear your PR spin and will see straight through your bluster.  The best approach is to talk intelligently about the topic you’re being asked to speak about.  At the start of the panel you’ll be given the opportunity to give the very quick bio on your company.  After that assume that everything else you say will be positively attributed to you and your company if you say clever things.  I think of a panel as a chance to build your personal and company brand because people find you to be helpful, informative, knowledgeable (and hopefully witty).  That is the “earned” part where you get positive association from contributing to the discussion and the community.  If they’re interested in doing business with you or your firm they’ll either come up after the talk or be in touch afterwards.

2. Be honest & straightforward & willing to talk your struggles – Most of business is a struggle.  Even the larger and fast growing companies usually have growing pains whether it involves staffing, product development, business development, revenue traction – whatever.  If you can give information about things that didn’t work or that you’ve had to struggle through and real life examples of how you’ve overcome this I find it helps the audience to learn.  I’m not saying that everything needs to be negative – just think about presenting with a degree of openness, honesty and self-deprecation.

3. Educate – Your primary function is to inform the audience about something that you presumably know a bit more about than many of them do.  If questions come up that you’re knowledgeable about use it as an opportunity to educate.  If you’re not knowledgeable about that topic don’t feel compelled to speak.  Nothing is more tedious than talking heads rambling on about stuff they clearly don’t know much about.

4. Try not to be boring – I know this sounds obvious, but most panelists are really boring.  You’re not only up there to educate but to entertain.  At a minimum show some enthusiasm, talk with energy, be willing to challenge the points made by other panelists (in a polite way … usually), and if you’re able to try to make things humorous.  I know this isn’t everybody’s forte so don’t go on a limb if you’re not funny – but at least show some excitement.  Above all: avoid all the consulting jargon, don’t hide behind technical terms – be human.  And avoid monotone delivery.  If you’re not good at speaking then go sign up for Toastmasters.

5. Grab all the panelist business cards and follow up with a meeting – With the exception of the gentleman on my panel last night, I always find panels a great way to build relationships with other executives.  There is a certain camaraderie you develop when you sit on a panel with someone else – particularly if you say reasonable things.  Through the years I’ve gotten to know people like Om Malik, Shel Israel, Esther Dyson, Ron Conway, etc. from panel discussions.  I always follow up afterward with an email and I often follow up with a coffee, breakfast or lunch.  Once you’ve been on a panel together you’re in a club.  But if you don’t follow up the memory fades.

Update: the “other panelist” has commented below and offers a good rebuttal of my read of the facts of his statements.  Fair play to him for speaking up to set the record straight ;-)


13 Responses to Sitting on Panels

    • marksuster says:

      Thanks, Mark. You were there – was I over the top? Was he a bit too self promotional or was it me?

      • Mark, I think you were well restrained. The OC Housewife example was on target and very illustrated of the issue. Audience members seemed in tuned as to who had command of facts. Lastly, it did add additional value, and per your blog – if all the panelist are saying the same thing it gets boring fast.

  1. Ryan Born says:

    OMG – I hope you actually used the BS word…I think sometimes people want something to be true so badly that they believe it’s actually a fact and speak to others are if it’s so…I wasn’t there, but if you caused drama – all the better. Regardless of who is right a who is wrong, a little drama between adults is certainly acceptable and it likely made the discussion more memorable for those in the audience.

  2. rob leathern says:

    Shutting down self-promoters and keeping the discussion fresh and interesting is what the moderator is meant to do… But sometimes their job is complicated by inappropriately matched panelists. The only other bs tho is not saying who this person is :)

    • marksuster says:

      LOL. You made me laugh. Here’s the link to who was on the panel. The speaker is a person was a professor at UCLA. I’ll let you do the rest ;-) btw, totally agree it is the moderators job – often they don’t step in.

  3. the other panelist says:

    Mark, your tips above are great– they should be mandatory for all panels I attend… I should use them myself. (Yes, I was too promotional of Babelgum, I was trying to make up for the fact that I didn’t give them proper credit when I showed their clip. My bad.)

    And now just to continue the controversy, can I suggest you add this tip to the above?

    “Don’t check your blackberry every second you’re not speaking.”

    If you hadn’t been checking yours so voraciously, you might have heard what I actually said– which was that the future might be good for PROFESSIONAL web content makers like The Guild, Gemini Project, The Onion, etc. I NEVER ONCE said that about UGC. I did say I thought UGC wouldn’t just die, but that’s because it’s now part of our global culture, not b/c it’s Oscar material.

    You also got my 2 points wrong above. First, if Google somehow didn’t put ads around the Susan Boyle clip, then maybe that’s a human error? (How could they not be doing so with Idol and Got Talent content? Seems obvious, right?) But even if you exclude that screw up, then I would say that the Idol/Got Talent franchises received WAY more than a million dollars worth of advertising from that clip. And it was advertising that a giant swath of the population embraced. Not just Avril Lavigne teens, but every demo!

    Finally, I never said UGC was in any way better than Real Housewives. I said Professional Content was usually better– higher quality– and that it was a great alternative to that crap. TV has polarized into crap reality and expensive dramas, leaving room for Professional producers to score on the web and mobile with Professional comedy content. As you saw from the 150 people who laughed and smiled at the film I showed, people do like to laugh, and there is and always will be emotional, cultural and financial value in that.

    • marksuster says:

      Fair play. I appreciate your comments and your willingness to write them here. Just for the record, I had my Blackberry connection set to “off”. I didn’t have pen and paper so I wrote my notes on my Blackberry and updated them as people spoke. I appreciate that this doesn’t look good but there wasn’t any pens/paper and the moderator had told me that the panel was to be about mobile application so I was surprised to find out that it was about online video. Thus I took last minute notes on my Blackberry.

      With regards to your film, I thought it was awesome. I even went back and recommended to to my colleagues who went to your site and watched it. The bummer I think is that great short films like this still struggle to make money online. Your advice to the group was “keep your expenses down”. While I agree that this is right, it doesn’t help when 80% of your expenses are salaries and you end up working for 5 years with low pay. The only answer in my mind is to find alternative business models for distributing content and charging for it. That’s why I really like what Topspin Media is doing for musicians. And why I like to see some online video firms like CrunchyRoll, ViiKii and Justin.TV increasingly looking to charge subscription revenues.

      Regarding who said what exactly and how and what we meant – I’m happy to bury the hatchet. I had a bit of fun on the panel and my biggest points to readers is that panels should be 1) non promotional 2) honest 3) educational and 4) fun / controversial. I think we gave the audience that. Thanks again for your comments.

  4. the other panelist says:

    I agree on all those points! Thanks Mark.

    PS, we do have a very diverse set of distribution contracts we are monetizing, and I agree most especially about subscription revenue. We’ve quadrupled our $ from our Sprint subscription channel in 12 months.

    Not only no hard feelings, but I’m looking fwd to a re-match.

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