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Beyond Panel Discussions

So, I’ve established that I’m angry about panel discussions. I'm definitely not the first and I won't be the last. But I'm asking you, now, to help me kill* (positive spin edit: go beyond) them. Get your gripes out. Talk about it. Demand better. Here are some reasons why:

  • Attendees are passive and powerless. Most have one choice: listen or not listen. Some get to ask a single question.

  • They ignore attendees’ collective expertise. If people bother to go to an event, they probably know some stuff. Panels don’t value this.

  • Attendees fall asleep. Most people can’t sit still in a dim room and focus for an hour. If audience attention crashes, everyone’s time is wasted.

  • Panels and Q&As chase tangents at random. Moderating is hard. Clumsy attempts to balance contributions between panellists often force the discussion artificially into tangents. Core discussion points are poorly signposted and attendees rarely get to see the panellists challenged.

  • The questions suck. Attendees often want to have a say, not ask a question, so you get rambly-not-questions that leave the panel gawping like goldfish and other attendees tutting..

  • There's no craft. A well-designed and delivered presentation can be compelling and informative (though still fall victim to the first three points). Panels remove the power of good prep and storytelling.

  • Panellists feel awkward and don’t learn. It's an unnatural dynamic. They don’t know what hit its mark, what riled people, and what people who are outside of their discipline, social network or workplace think of what they do.

Yikes. So given how sub-optimal panel discussions are, why are they run?

  • They are safe, familiar and easy. Audience expectations are low, speaker and facilitator preparation is minimal and everyone knows their role.

  • Event planners don’t know how to run other formats. Many event planners are early-career, and if they are discipline specialists, may not see event management as a skill to be expanded and developed. They might not have seen alternative formats or don’t have experience running them, which makes the prospect daunting.

  • Institutions and managers are not ambitious or supportive enough. Trying new formats involves risk, because the event planner, experts or audience might find it unfamiliar or it might be clunky. Often the officer-level staff running the event don’t sign off on the overall programme and may not wield the authority to change the format. Managers should push their staff to experiment, innovate and put the audience first.

All of these can be addressed.

Regarding the first, we must do better. Live events offer the richest and most exciting opportunities for genuine dialogue between and among experts and the wider community. The spin-off benefits from making attendees engage with each other go well beyond the content. We’re failing as event planners if we force experts into a didactic position and attendees into a passive one. It reinforces 20th century thinking for both groups and is a poor use of budget and staff time. This is the age of innovation!

For the second point, I shouldn’t have to say this: The internet abounds with resources. I’m going to follow this blog with some more based on my own experience. Ignorance is no excuse. Here are some keywords: World Café, Open Space, Presenterless Workshop. Those are quite big deviations from panels; the ones I plan to outline fall somewhere in between.

The third point is the most complex. Many institutions have one or more points in the planning chain where the ambition and will exist, but other factors close down creative event ideas in favour of tradition or ease. If you are one of the people in that chain, talk to the people above, below or next to you about this! Show your enthusiasm and show how much can be achieved by trying something new. Make a strong, practical case. Go to events that use alternative formats and watch the organisation of them like a hawk. Treat event planning as just as valid a skill as writing or podcasting or video editing or publishing research. A rich, well designed live event crackles with the vibrant exchange of ideas and open minds.

It's up to everyone to loosen the stranglehold of the panel discussion. Dozens of formats exist that can address many, or all, of the weaknesses above. They are still driven and guided by experts, but respect what the attendees offer and make space for them to engage. They don’t take much more time, effort or money than a panel. And they work. They work for the experts, they work for the attendees, and they work for the institution hosting them.

Make attendees active (note I'm not using the word audience!). Use experts wisely. Let them be humans with a rich and informed, but not authoritative, position on a subject. Let people talk to each other. Guide conversations but don't force them. View event planning as a skill and craft, not a tick-list.

I’ll soon post DIY guides on formats I’ve used to address some of the problems with panels. They aren’t my inventions – credit must go to the ten-year history of clever people who worked hard at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre to break down the panel format, and no doubt many other event planners who’ve innovated - in the true sense of the word - with spaces, with content, with experts, with technology. If you don't run events, give feedback to those who do! Event planners do read and take feedback. It helps them.

I’d love to hear your responses – thoughts on the premise, experiences you’ve had with panels shining or crashing, pointers for resources or guides, and especially suggestions for the best event formats you’ve seen, tried or imagined. I'll be tweeting on #killpanels.

Be bold. See your attendees as your biggest asset. Repeat with me: Kill panel discussions.

*Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr Finnigan. Forgive me. Yes, kill is a violent and loaded term. I feel strongly.

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