Beyond Panels: The Presenterless Future?

Our quest to mitigate guest speakers’ privilege, plus include audiences as participants in workshops and panel discussions, continues.

Last week I spoke at USQ – where audience members were invited on stage as part of my live-streamed presentation – and I also delivered a workshop “Are we asking the right questions of our digital future?” at Broadband for the Bush.

For the latter, I wanted to create a way of talking about the future that was open to all and could even be held in venues with limited access to technology.

I put together twelve provocations: 400-word texts, followed by questions which served to prompt discussion. Workshop participants were invited to choose one or two of the twelve provocations, read them, and then discuss them with their tablemates.

I’m trying to get away from a way of organisational strategising which is bound by bureaucratic language, organisers’ preconceptions, and the constraints of previous policy. I also wanted to find a way of speaking about the future which is open to a broader public, not just experts.

Originally we planned to put the provocations on an iPad: each participant would get their own tablet, click on one of twelve images, and then be given a text & set of questions to discuss with their neighbours.

This was similar to the approach we’d taken with a social media workshop at the Heritage Leaders Forum last month.

The format was partly inspired by STAR TEST, an unusual chat show which screened on British TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Celebrities “interviewed themselves” by selecting questions from an onscreen interface.

After experimenting with a tablet-based version of our Presenterless Workshop, we realised we wanted these provocations to be available to all, and for the activity to be one you could also carry out in venues that didn’t have sufficient resources for a digital workshop. This was especially important given that Broadband for the Bush aims to fight the exclusion of regional and remote areas.

So we printed multiple copies of each text and put them in folders. We then paperclipped a colour image to the front of each folder – the image that would have been the text’s “icon” on our iPad version.

The idea was to show that an interactive discussion of our digital future could be done using materials you would find in almost any stationery cupboard. Using paperclips instead of adhesive to attach the “icons” even meant we weren’t even wasting those folders; they could be returned to your stationery cupboard once you were done. As with the teen zombie sieges, we were more concerned with the quality of interaction than flashy production values.

The activities invited people to write, to draw, and to create imaginary mixtapes of favourite sounds and images, as well as getting to grips with serious political and ethical issues about digital access.

One participant told us: “The best thing about having questions to discuss was hearing about how they applied to different attendees’ jobs. At so many conferences, the best bit is meeting people, but you only have time to swap names and explain your role over coffee before it’s time to go to the next session. Here we learned about one another’s work and shared fresh perspectives as part of an ongoing discussion tied to the conference theme.”

Trials of the presenterless digital session will continue this year, in advance of an adapted version being released by the State Library for our 2017 year of digital programming.

For more on Presenterless Workshops and going beyond panels, check out David Robertson’s Beyond Panels.

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