Death to All Panels

Getty Images
Getty Images

Operating on no coffee and five hours of sleep, I attempted to survive a three-and-a-half hour series of panels on new media during the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual conference and failed.


It wasn’t for a lack of effort on the panel members’ part.

Robert Townsend bounded around the room trying to sell me on his Web-based show “Diary of a Single Mom,” including dragging out the slightly less enthusiastic looking cast, including be-shaded Billy Dee Williams, a thoughtful Richard Roundtree and a bored-out-of-his mind looking Leon. It wasn’t for a lack of people. Each panel was filled to the brim with experts, hosted by author/scholar Farai Chideya.

Unfortunately, they were all up against the same thing that dooms all panel discussions—they’re boring.

Unless you have the most magnetic of speakers or you roll out the comedic theatrics as Townsend did, panel discussions can be a dry, academic excursion, feeling as if it were birthed by the collegiate lectern and the soothing monotone of white noise. As one panel discussed the merits of Twitter, some in the audience nodded off. As the day wore on, one woman doubled over completely in her chair, using her purse as a pillow. By the time the third and final panel took the stage, a bulk of the audience was gone, many out in the hallway discussing the haplessness of the panel, including some of the earlier panel speakers themselves who knew that the sheer broad scope and length of the whole excursion had doomed it to some extent.

The problem with panels is that it is often a one-way conversation. By the time audience members get to ask questions, there is a rush to get through them so that time doesn’t run out for the following panel. And there are so many questions, specific ones where people need one-on-one counseling, something more akin to a workshop, rather than a staid and formal mono instead of stereo discourse. In other words, too much talk—not enough action.

Several older audience members at the new media discussion expressed their frustration at various panel members as they didn’t even understand the basics of what was being discussed. What was Twitter? What was Facebook? How do you find the black blogosphere? How do you Google? And some of the people who needed to be part of this discussion the most, namely members of the Congressional Black Caucus, weren’t even there. They were all tied up with an emergency caucus meeting on health care, missing out on the frustrated members of one panel who complained that many black Democrats were missing out on opportunities to organize and mobilize voters online in the same way their opposition is currently doing.


But even that noble effort was still more talking than teaching, as panels are more about expressing an individual view than meeting a need.

And I write all this as someone who has been on panels, will probably be on more panels and has attempted to keep the speechifying short and question-answer sessions long. Because that’s what people actually want from these meetings. They want answers. They want guidance. They want attention. They want to understand.


Do they want to hear me say whether or not I tweet? Not so much.

Danielle Belton blogs at The Black Snob.