I received some supportive and thoughtful responses to my recent entry about the conference panel format and its annoying limitations as a means for sharing rich ideas. Some responses echoed the problems I identified, and let me know I wasn’t alone. Said one:
I find most panel discussions ineffective, and not focused to the concerns of those in need. Most of the rhetoric heralds the accomplishments of the panelists rather than allowing the audience to explain their challenges and receiving advice. I have never witnessed much advice given, nor heard panelist brainstorm ideas between each other that may assist those with questions.
Another said much the same:
For years I have thought that the standard format was a disaster for all involved, from the talking heads to the moderators to the audience, and I am glad to find that I am not the only one. We need to demand much more experimentation in this area from our conference organizers–the current approach is clearly broken.
As for solutions or alternatives to the conference panel, some offered minor tweaks, others suggested an entirely different model.
There is one possible solution: the panel request questions be submitted in advance and their opening statements answer those questions. The challenge is to ensure those who submit the questions know that their question will be included in the opening discussion.
Another reader suggested a ‘boot camp’ for panel moderators…or a short, required training session with a professional facilitator just before the conference begins. Since I have seen conference panels that were quite lively and interactive, and this was often due to a thoughtful and artful moderator, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Several readers mentioned the Open Space meeting model, not as an antidote, but as an alternative. This conference format is much more open and interactive, allowing the participants to both determine the session topics and then self-organize into discussion groups. One supporter also mentioned that the format had problems, as well:
[Open Space] can work better than the standard panel in the aspects you mention. One caveat is that sessions can also devolve into whine-fests, venting/sharing of complaints about things. While this has a place in supportive networking, it¹s not the kind of productivity I think most of us seek in our pressured schedules. I¹m not a complete fan, and there are other downsides, but the Open Space technology in my experience does succeed in tapping into the intelligence in the room.
One friend in the evaluation world suggested we might learn something from the professionals who live to find better methods to share, explore, and evaluate ideas. Their solution is to offer several types of conversation models to better match the specific goals of the session:
The American Evaluation Association does a nice job of offering a range of formats for use at their annual conventions….For example, I’ve organized sessions using Debate, Roundtable, and Think Tank formats with good success. Much more interactive and recognizes the fact that we humans like to talk more than listen passively.
Another associate who plays a central role in conference development for a major association had seen many failed attempts to reconsider the panel discussion format, and was less hopeful of a positive solution:
In comparison to the discussions which happen in less formal settings or intentionally didactic workshops, every attempt that I’ve seen at deconstructing or rethinking panel discussions in a conference setting have resulted in exercises just as contrived and unrevealing as the abhorred panel format.
Finally, another reader burst the bubble altogether, by suggesting that the formal sessions of any conference are not where the truly valuable connections occur, anyway:
For the most part, I no longer attend conferences for the panels, the keynote speakers, or other distinguished guests, but for the opportunities to meet and interact with my peers and colleagues face to face, to be stimulated by their ideas and energy, and to renew my own commitment to the field. The best conference experiences happen in the interstices between the scheduled events, and I am feeling less and less guilty about prolonging these encounters past their approved boundaries. Conference organizers who zealously over-schedule our time, cut breaks short when sessions run over, and otherwise trample on these interstices need to be reminded that these moments are, for many of us, the highlights of the conference experience.
Nobody’s taken me up on my big idea of commissioning artists to craft a new format for us all. But I’ll still keep hoping.
Thanks to all who responded. It’s a treat to make my little monologue a bit more interactive, as well.