I don’t have a lot of time today so I thought I would do something today not connected with my previous posts and share a few thoughts on conferences and specifically panels. Impact investing is a conference-heavy profession, and as a result I have been in a bunch of rooms where one man is asking three other men a few questions each. Sometimes I am one of those men, and sometimes I am one of the people looking at my phone in the 4th row. Very occasionally I am the man asking the questions. The experience from all three perspectives stinks. Everyone I have ever asked about this shares my opinion. It is so difficult to find someone that doesn’t share this opinion that it borders on fact. Fact: panels are stupid. No on likes them, and yet for 90% of conferences they are the default organizing element. Keynote/panel/panel/lunch/panel/panel/keynote/dinner/drunkenness.
I think there are some fairly basic reasons most of us are there in the first place. They are:
OK, but I know this isn’t realistic, at least in the short term. Setting up panels is easy and low risk for organizers. People’s expectations are so low, you rarely hear someone say “Boy, that was a bad panel.” It requires almost no preparation. So, let’s talk about #6, the only things panels are good for. The point of panels is to be seen. We use panels to signify who is important in our corners of the world, who is worth talking to. It’s not about what those people actually say (which is usually very little). Often if I am trying to understand a new space, I find a panel listing for a conference I didn’t even attend and call the three panelists because I assume those are the three best people to talk to to understand what is going on in that space. And those three people are almost always look like me.
The standard argument for why 3 white guys on a panel suck is that different people bring different perspectives. I guess I hate panels enough to say that 3 people with 3 genuinely different points of view assembled into a panel will still suck, but it can’t hurt. More importantly, panels are how we signal to the audience “These are the people worth talking to”, and more often than not we are signaling “the most important people in this space are all white dudes” That stinks. Its almost never true, and even if it is temporarily true in some tiny niche topic, it’s worth forcing some new voices in before they have anything interesting to say. After all, no one ever says anything interesting anyway.
So, for what it’s worth, no more all white dude panels for me. Not as a participant, not as an audience member. And for any conference I actually help organize, no panels. They stink.
Patrick Maloney lives in Portland, OR where he helps nice people working on cool stuff. He tries to limit his blogging to things about which he knows something.