BEWARE of the “Stacked Panel” At Your Next Conference

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So here’s a new term I have never heard of: “Stacked Panel.”

Found the definition in a Microsoft internal document (page 54, to be precise) submitted in 2000 as evidence in a class-action lawsuit against the mighty software giant,

“A stacked panel, on the other hand, is like a stacked deck: it is packed with people who, on the face of things, should be neutral, but who are in fact strong supporters of our technology. The key to stacking a panel is being able to choose the moderator. Most conference organizers allow the moderator to select panelists, so if you can pick the moderator, you win. Since you can’t expect representatives of our competitors to speak on your behalf, you have to get the moderator to agree to having only ‘independent ISVs’ on the panel. No one from Microsoft or any other formal backer of the competing technologies would be allowed -just ISVs who have to use this stuff in the ‘real world.’  Sounds marvelously independent doesn’t it?  In fact, it allows us to stack the panel with ISVs that back our cause. Thus, the ‘independent’ panel ends up telling the audience that our technology beats the others hands down. Get the press to cover this panel, and you’ve got a major win on your hands.”

I’ve been to a few “stacked panels” before (but didn’t even realize it!), and always left with a bad taste in my mouth.  The views and perspectives were terribly lopsided, biased, and generally not helpful unless I was an advocate of that viewpoint.  So why bother singing to your own choir?

As a professional panel moderator, I cringe at the additional “wisdom” in the memo:

“Finding a moderator is key to setting up a stacked panel.  The best sources of pliable moderators are:

  • Analysts:  Analysts sell out – that’s their business model.  But they are very concerned that they never look like they are selling out, so that makes them very prickly to work with.
  • Consultants:  These guys are your best bet as moderators.  Get a well-known consultant on your side early, but don’t let him publish anything blatantly pro-Microsoft. Then, get him to propose himself to the conference organizers as a moderator, whenever a panel opportunity pops up.  Since he is well known, but apparently independent, he’ll be accepted – one less thing for the constantly overworked conference organizer to worry about, right?”

Yet another reason you would want to hire a neutral, outside professional panel moderator!

Guess this stacking panel strategy made sense for Microsoft – Techrights is suggesting that Microsoft is still engaging in stacking the panel discussion.  So from this point forward, don’t say I didn’t warn you!


Related Articles:

How Moderators Can Manage Awkward Audience Comments

How to Create GREAT Questions for Your Panelists to Answer during Your Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion Tip #185 with Jeffrey Hayzlett: Finishing Panel Discussions


For more resources on moderating panel discussions, visit the Knowledge Vault. To have Kristin moderate your next panel, visit the Powerful Panels official website.



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Kristin ArnoldKristin Arnold
KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.
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