8 tips to make a panel discussion not become a punishment
It’s time to improve this traditional format, which for better or worse still persists throughout most international development organizations.
Development organizations are fond of assembling experts in a room and hosting panel discussions that are often a dreadful experience for those on the panel, as well as those in the audience. Reading directly from scripts, awful PowerPoint presentations, prepared questions and answers, lengthy remarks, and very little outcome for the comparatively huge human, financial, and logistical resources that are spent to prepare and execute such events.
I’m not sure when panel discussions became an exercise in participant punishment that seems diabolically perfect in combining underperforming speakers, lack of gender balance, and an environment more conducive to checking Facebook updates or dozing off. Newcomers to the international development arena must feel shocked to see what people seem to be willing to accept and endure as part of what should be fruitful, encouraging, or controversial exchanges of ideas.
We can—and should—share knowledge in a more meaningful, productive, and interesting way. The World Health Organization recently published a succinct report on different event formats that can be used for sharing the key content of a large report, such as a fishbowl panel, storytelling, or an open situation room. They also provided ten basic rules for better events like know your objective, plan early, or collaborate with partners. Since I know that some formats may be a bit too innovative for certain settings and institutions, I offer some recommendations to improve the traditional panel discussion format, which for better or worse still persists throughout most international development organizations.
1. The honorable challenge. If your event has more than 10 minutes of welcoming remarks, then there might be a confusion of objectives between ribbon-cutting and knowledge sharing. It can be sufficient to dutifully mention honorable hosts and guests. If they want to speak, distribute their inputs over different sessions and give them (other) meaningful roles such as hosting a lunch or reception, providing discussion inputs to a panel, or wrapping up an event.
2. Death by PowerPoint. I do not share the radical event rule to forbid the use of PowerPoint presentations, as they can be extremely powerful and useful tools to accommodate riveting inputs. It is, however, advisable to strictly limit the number of slides (10-15, or even less), ask panelists to prepare their presentations well in advance so the organizer has the final version several days before the event, and avoid text-heavy slides. There should be a clear differentiation between presentation-based inputs and other forms of participation, like for instance a discussant should technically not present.
3. Noah’s Ark. Gender balance is more fruitful for the creation of new ideas in knowledge sharing. However, a panel cannot accommodate all species. In a 90-minute session, more than 4-5 inputs feels like a repetitive conveyor belt scene. One input can be prepared by different resource persons and presented by one representative. When presenting case studies, focus on the really good ones or organize separate, parallel panels to give room for different subthemes or subregional examples.
4. Role playing. Only have people on a panel with an actual role, and either get rid of ceremonial panel chairs or make them the moderator/facilitator or discussant if they are fit to do so. There is a huge difference between resource persons who contribute their persona to a panel, and those who share knowledge. For the latter, a presentation input seems useful, but the former are much better used as discussants, sounding boards, or interrogators. Also, check if panel participants are comfortable with a combined role or moderating a session where they neither want to present something in particular, nor provide a provocative opinion.
5. Musical chairs. Event planners often have splendid ideas on how to arrange a room based on their extensive experience, so please ask for suggestions and listen to them. It is conducive to an eye-level discussion and interactive exchange to discard traditional stage/auditorium settings and meaningless rectangular symmetry. Hippies were not so wrong about introducing a circle of chairs. Tables, flip charts and other workshop equipment can send a clear message that communication is active, in both directions, and is intended to be captured.
6. Concurrence sparks. Participants do not need to directly take part in all sessions. Thus, simultaneous sessions offer more intimate settings, focused discussions, more diverse space for inputs, and an opportunity for extraordinary conversation starters to interact with other participants during breaks. Since not all features of an event will catch your full interest and enthusiasm, parallel sessions are a welcome remedy to skip certain sessions in favor of others.
7. Give me a break. People convene at conferences not so much for the formal sessions, but rather the informal networking and information exchange. In a better world, the sessions would include formats to enable such interactions, but for now it is the breaks that offer serendipity, so increase the number of pauses and extend their length.
8. Proceedings for the shelf. Record the process and outcomes of your event, but keep in mind that jotting down the minutest details of each session is only used for discourse analysis by researchers. Capturing an event is therefore best done through images. People love pictures, so tell the story of your event by using expressive photographic coverage in combination with succinct summaries, memorable quotes, and links to further sources such as presentations, readings and websites, and enable feedback mechanisms for instance via social media.
In your next event preparation, you may be able to infuse some of these and other recommendations into the chosen format. Explain to decision-makers and participants why the style of your event is not business-as-usual – preparation and proper briefing is key. Please try to achieve incremental improvements on our long way out of the current panel discussion punishment.