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August 2, 2005 » 7:12 am

The Unjoy of Panels

I’m a veteran panel moderator. I’ve been doing it since high school, and I think I’m pretty good at it. But I’m thinking about retiring from the business.    (JKL)

Last week, I moderated the SofTECH / SDForum July meeting on “Architecting Community and Collaboration Solutions.” Tony Christopher had suggested me to Ron Lichty, the meeting producer. Ron and I, as it turned out, had met a few years earlier at a GivingSpace workshop. Ron explained to me his goals for the panel, told me who the panelists would be, and I said, “Sign me up!”    (JKM)

The panel went well. The panelists — Tony Christopher, Zack Rosen, Sylvia Marino, and Scott Wilder — were great. Everyone told lots of great stories, but also respected the other panelists, and no one tried to dominate the floor, which made my job incredibly easy. More importantly, the audience was engaged with the topic and the panelists. Ron was great also. He had done a masterful job of organizing the event and preengaging the panel.    (JKN)

The problem was that the panel format was wrong. Panels work best when they emerge as entertaining and informative roundtable discussions. As good as our panelists were, that was not going to happen, because the format did not optimally align with our goal — educating the audience. A panel format can achieve this goal — and ours did — but only in a broadcast model, which does not maximize group potential.    (JKO)

It was clear from an informal poll I took at the beginning of the panel and the number of faces I recognized that we had a lot of expertise in the audience itself. It would have been far more engaging and educational for all involved had we done a more interactive format, where we spent an hour in break-outs, possibly followed by a moderated plenary discussion. The panelists, in this scenario, would have been co-participants with the rest of the audience.    (JKP)

I moderated two panels and gave a talk at last June’s Collaborative Technologies Conference. One panel was in a traditional format for reasons largely out of my control, but I decided to play with the other two formats. In both of those cases, I turned the tables on the audience, rearranging the stage format into a circle, and basically played discussion moderator rather than panel moderator. Several people had already camped out in the back with their laptops open — almost assuredly planning to check email rather than listen to the talk — and a look of fear and shock came over their eyes when I told them to join me in the circle.    (JKQ)

Several people approached me afterwards and praised the format. (My favorite moment was one night at dinner, when I introduced myself to Stowe Boyd, who wrote a great essay on panels. Upon hearing my name, Stowe said, “I want to thank you.” I was completely baffled by this, as we had never met, and Stowe had not attended any of my talks. Apparently, he had heard about my panels — probably from Arieanna Foley — and he was grateful that someone had tried something different.) These folks were clearly suffering from panel fatigue, and just the fact that we were doing something different and engaging improved the experience wildly for them. I guarantee that the circle format was also more informative for the audience as a whole, because it addressed their specific concerns and it introduced a set of viewpoints far more rich than just mine or a panel’s.    (JKR)

As much as people respond to these more interactive formats, they are mere baby steps. Kindergarteners get in circles, for pete’s sake. Pre-school can be fun, but once you’ve been in kindergarten, you don’t want to go back. Facilitation techniques like Conversation Cafe and Open Space are at the first grade level, Aspiration is at second grade, and MGTaylor is at third. The latter techniques augmented with cutting edge collaborative tools is at least the fourth grade level, and we’ve only scratched the surface as to what’s possible. It’s just sad that the vast majority of conferences are at the pre-school level.    (JKS)

There are situations where panels work well as a format, but they are vastly overdone. In any case, don’t let this post prevent you from inviting me to moderate a panel. Just expect me to make some strong demands concerning format.    (JKT)

(See also Mary Hodder‘s excellent panel diatribe.)    (JKU)

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