Beyond Panels

Here’s the ever-thoughtful Justin Hoenke on conference presentations:

We’re thinking about similar things down under…last month, the State Library of Queensland experimented with a Presenterless Workshop format, as part of a wider campaign by science communicator David Robertson, called Beyond Panels.

So, I’ve established that I’m angry about panel discussions. 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 exploit 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.

At last Friday’s Heritage Leaders Workshop, we again tried to address some of these challenges during a session on social media.I was playing host to our guest speakers, a couple of digital mavens from the State Library and State Archives.

In the first session, I handed over my phone and my Twitter account to an audience member as an exercise in trust, exploring the fine line between integrity and accountability.

Things got even more exciting in the second session, when there were no Twitter users in attendance.

We began with our experts on stage in a “chat show” format.

Attendees could choose the speakers’ topics from a multiple-choice screen behind them.

We then set the attendees a simple collaborative activity and gave them time to leave the auditorium and work in groups.

When the groups returned, we invited them to present from the stage.

…and we then began to rotate out the speakers sitting on the couch as well as at the podium…

until we ended up with an all-female stage, instead of the all-male stage we’d begun with.

And here’s the fun bit…the final presenters finished six minutes early.

Instead of reclaiming the stage, the original team of presenters remained in the audience while the women took charge.

They decided they wanted to field questions from attendees, continuing the discussions about social media.

They gave common-sense responses to the challenges raised by their fellow participants – and our social media experts nodded from the auditorium floor, as the crowd led their own discussion based on all they’d heard and done over the previous ninety minutes.

After the event was over, I was contacted by a conference participant requesting a copy of the photos I’d taken during the session. One of our regional attendees had been sent to the conference by their partner, who was worried that their confidence had been shaken by a recent medical diagnosis. That attendee had ended up speaking confidently and entertainingly from the stage in the State Library’s main auditorium, and our social media coverage provided evidence of the experience to share with friends, family, and colleagues back home.

It was scary to hand over your phone to a complete stranger – and equally challenging to hand over the stage to conference attendees you’d never met before – but it was a huge success for us. I’ve no great desire to systematize this process and spoil the lively, organic feel which made it so effective – but I will work out better ways to outline and share our approach in due course.

For now, I can only say that stepping off the stage was the best thing we did all week. And the opportunity for you to do the same is out there.

For more on going Beyond Panels, check out the work of David Robertson.

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