Deconstructing Panel Sessions

nudgonomics debate at demosI spent a lot of time (well not that much actually, but it *felt* like a lot) in panel sessions at SXSWi and today I attended a debate (two person panel) at DEMOS.

It seems to me that there are always a few things going on in such a session and that sometimes these things are in conflict with each other. Initially I got narked about the use of “questions in threes” but I think there’s more to it than that.

So one way to pull it apart is to look at the motivations of each player. Who’s there? In any panel session let’s say there’s a moderator, a bunch of panelists and audience members – there are different kinds of audience members too – those who want to contribute, those who want to only listen – also perhaps those who are part of the organisation holding the event and those who are from “outside”.

Moderator – The moderator opens up, introduces the speakers and manages any question and answer process. What do they want? A smooth running event, which people remember. Presumably they also want people to remember that the moderator was really good and maybe they might like to hire them to do something else. They want to please as many people in the audience as possible by giving them the opportunity to ask loads of questions or have lots of questions answered.

Panelists – usually have something to sell, maybe it’s a book, or strategic advice, or consulting services or maybe they’re looking for more speaking gigs. They want to show off their erudition and quick wittedness by answering questions eruditely and wittily. They want to be right.

The audience – want to learn something, want to be seen by their peers, want to see who else has come, want other people to hear what they have to say on the subject, want to be associated with the panellists, or disassociated from them. If they are part of the host organisation, they may want to impress their boss and other colleagues or else push the company line. If they are from the outside they may want to impress prospective clients or intimidate competitors with their superior intellect. They might just want to hear an intelligent, flowing conversation about the subject and make their own minds up about things. They might have come to collect ideas for a blog post or something else that they’re writing.

We all (well most of us, in this country) like to pretend that we’re not selling ourselves all the time, but the reality is that we are, especially those of us who are freelance, whether we’re doing it consciously or explicitly or not.

Questions in threes is a technique where the moderator takes three (sometimes more!) questions and lets the panelists answer them all together. It’s presented as a way to get more questions in and to give panelists more time to think about their answer, but it actually only serves the moderator’s desire to look good by letting lots of people in and getting things done quickly. Patrick Hadfield summed it up in a tweet to me this afternoon:

“…all that happens is that the first question gets ignored, or if it is answered, the rest of the audience has forgotten it!”

Exactly that happened in the session today. The panelist is also panicking because they’ve got another random question coming at them while they’re still thinking about the first one. And the audience is not sure which question is being answered. The moderator however is achieving the goal of getting through lots of q&a swiftly without any regard to whether the questions are being answered sensibly.

I’m getting tired, and I’ve written more than I initially intended, so I’m probably wrong. Let me know in the morning.

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