Silence of the audience

April 19, 2016

I’m angry.

 

I’m in a new city, a new flat, with a new job and no friends. I went to an event called Re-creating Communities, run by Melbourne Conversations. Free, in the incredible Deakin Edge in Federation Square. The 150-strong audience were a demographic mix and I’m sure they were a clever and interesting bunch. A like-minded temporary community, if you will.

I didn’t talk to anyone.

 

It was a panel discussion. It meandered down short tangents, skated across the surface of deep ideas, and took about six questions from the audience. It had moments – panels tend to, because smart people with microphones sometimes say smart things. It was about smart cities. We heard some smart ideas, saw some shiny videos, and sat through mediocre questions.

 

Now, I could have made an effort to approach random strangers as they walked out towards the train. But I didn’t (next time I will, and I’ll bring cake, and people can exchange cake for conversations about the topic of the night). So I didn’t say a word from the time I left my house to the time I got back. Then I just swore a bit, to test if my voice worked.

 

The panel weren’t challenged. The audience weren’t drawn in (@pat has a good writeup here). It was as disappointing – and predictable – as the panel I went to a month ago at the World Science Festival* in Brisbane, titled Science and Story. Same deal there. Good speakers, great turnout, opportunity lost to the tyranny of the format. I didn’t meet any of the interesting people I shared a room with for 2 hours.

 

I went to another panel discussion at the WSF. It was illuminating. It was for kids, titled ‘A letter to my teenage self’. After half an hour of stage-bound talking in which the attendant kids wrestled each other’s shoes off on the floor, there was a chance for them to ask the scientists questions. They were brilliant, simple and universal. “What scares you about what you do?” “What do you do when work is hard?” “What made you interested in science?”

 

As a facilitator, I’d happily take those questions and put them to almost any group of experts. Or professionals. Or children. They’re great questions. But even those great questions won’t fix the plague on live events that is the panel discussion. Let's end them.

 

*Note that I don't want to single out either Melbourne Conversations or the WSF for only running panels; according to their programmes, they don't, and they do run more intimate conversational events, and I look forward to attending these. I'm only using them as recent examples from my experience, and symptomatic of the stranglehold this format has on events in general.

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