Friday, 10 September 2010

In the chair: how to handle a panel discussion

I chaired my first conference session this week. The panel were, frankly, amazing. I was very lucky to have had acceptances from a truly great group of people, that not only offered a broad range of views, but were willing to be open and honest about their point of view.

Having not done this before, I set out to get some advice from others who have done this well. Some suggested reading follows below:

So what would I add to these words of wisdom? Well, having now faced the challenge head on, I'll agree with all those pieces that chairing a panel is not easy! At all! Some of the hardest things were dealing with questions or answers that took the issue off topic, and handling the same small vocal minority to ensure they didn't monopolize the conversation.What I also found difficult was keeping the questions very short and to the point. In hindsight I'd practice that aspect more. I'd prepared lots of questions and had lots of views myself (which I managed, for the most part, to keep to myself), but there were a few occasions where I felt I should have worked the room better. So my advice is as follows:
  • Preparation really is everything. My biggest benefit was having looked carefully at who was on the panel, and what their strengths were, what they could respond to, and where to turn a particular question over to them.
  • Keep intros snappy, and set out how you want audience participation to be. If they know what your expectations are, it's easier to control. So if you want questions throughout, say so. If you want them just at the end, be clear. It's just like facilitating any meeting.
  • Keep questions short and clear. Take time to clarify if there is any confusion, so your speakers don't veer off topic.
  • Make sure you do look to the whole room, not just the small vocal minority, for input. They do have questions, they're just shy. Find ways to get them involved.
  • Do leave time to cover what you want. I set a timer to count down at the start of the session, which enabled me to monitor how long we were spending on each area, and to say clearly how much time we had left.
  • Final point: be flexible. It won't go exactly how you plan - you can't predict what people will want to talk about, either on the panel or in the audience. You just need to keep the flow moving, and ensure the audience get lots of time to engage.
I think my first chair experience was far from a disaster, but I've got lots of room for improvement. It was great to hear from lots of different people how much they enjoyed the session over the course of the conference. Looking forward to the next opportunity to try it again!