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. I 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