Getting the Most out of Panel Discussions

When I set out as a young researcher, conferences had a pretty monolithic structure. There were longer talks and there were shorter talks, but that was it. I don’t even think the first conferences I attended had poster sessions. Talks were usually delivered either with an overhead projector(usually with prepared overheads, but occasionally written on the fly; and, as a speaker, the acetates were tediously heavy for travelling by train let alone plane) or with slides – or even with a mixture of both.

Slides were great for people like me who wanted to use electron or optical micrographs, but had their own downsides. The glass (yes, glass) cracked frequently and it was only too easy to put the slides in the wrong way up (which actually meant they had to put into the slide projector upside down so they projected correctly). On a bad day the whole set could come out wrong. There were other things that could go sadly astray. I once attended a talk where the projector decided to spit out each slide as it advanced round the carousel. There were flying slides in the room, but none made it to projection. Or there was the time a Japanese speaker, who had carefully put his slides in Western order in the pockets used for travel (i.e. left to right in rows, not in vertical columns as would have been the Japanese way) but was ‘helped’ by his Japanese colleague who had assumed the speaker would have loaded the slides as would have been done in Japan; he therefore re-sorted them as he inserted them into the projector. Clearly the slides weren’t random, because one could have worked out an algorithm for where slide X would have appeared, but equally they made a nonsense of the talk.

All this is a digression. I want to discuss a relatively new entrant (at least in my experience) into the field of formats at conference: the panel discussion. I have been on both sides of the podium for such sessions and I have yet to feel that I have attended/participated in any such session that really worked. The list of pitfalls is fairly numerous, but I am not sure that it would ever be possible to avoid them completely. Have other readers had better experiences and come away satisfied? It seems to me that, on the surface, they look like a brilliant idea: a mixture of brief introductions from experts in the field, a chance for some cut and thrust discussion between the panellists and finally questioning from the floor. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, quite a lot it turns out.

The first issue is how many panellists are ideal? I have seen any number from 3-6. Less than 3 and you just have a conversation (which actually I think works rather well, but the format doesn’t tend to be favoured: perhaps it’s viewed as too ‘intimate’). Each speaker is meant to introduce their view of a specific topic, let’s say ‘Are we producing too many postdocs, given the number of faculty positions available?’, or ‘How should the government make decisions about research infrastructure?’ to give an idea of the sort of questions that might be asked (although I haven’t actually seen these specific questions discussed). Conference organisers optimistically suggest each speaker might talk for 5 minutes; in practice, given a brief like that, few will manage to restrict their remarks to less than 10. You can immediately see the problem with a panel of 6: the time is likely to be used up (an hour would be a typical timeslot) before anything other than the opening remarks have been made. It isn’t likely to have been a very constructive session, particularly if everyone’s position is well-known in advance as is all too often the case.

A panel of three, however, should mean that only half the allotted time is used up, so let’s work on that optimistic assumption. Maybe the person chairing the session now decides to kick-start the discussion by asking a question or two that they’ve laboriously prepared in advance. If they allow each panellist to respond to each question, another slug of time vanishes. This is a disaster as too often the same ground is repeatedly covered.

I once attended a meeting where the chair had assiduously prepared a whole list of questions and was working through them one by one, with each panellist likely to respond to each question, and yet again it was obvious that the audience – on this occasion very obviously champing at the bit to be allowed to ask questions – wasn’t going to get much of a look-in. Some brave member of the panel spoke up, suggesting to the chair that perhaps others might like to pose some questions and the situation was semi-rescued.

My own view of what would be ideal would involve:

  • Strict time-keeping in the opening remarks (see my previous post for a fuller discussion of the importance of always keeping an eye on the clock).
  • Having a maximum of 4 panellists, enough to give a breadth of views and experience, but not so many as to absorb all the time without thought.
  • Ensuring that the audience are allowed at least half the time to ask questions and to make sure that each questioner makes clear which panellist they want a response from.
  • The chair should have a list of questions only to be used in extremis if the audience are silent and no one seems to have any burning issues to raise; otherwise their role should merely be to keep things moving on and not allow anyone to hog the floor.
  • Part of the act of ‘moving things on’ must, however, be to allow exchanges/disagreements between the panellists to be aired if it becomes clear this is appropriate.
  • At the end, sufficient time should be allowed for each panellist to make one or two (not more) closing remarks.

Unfortunately I don’t think I have ever attended a discussion that got anywhere near this list. I usually come away frustrated that no real debate has occurred and often that I could have predicted what was likely to be said. As a panellist I am usually equally frustrated because too often I sense there has been no opportunity for in-depth probing of the issues, and too often one ill-behaved panellist has monopolised the entire discussion. (You will note from that that I, possibly incorrectly, do not associate myself with such indiscretions.)

I can see why conference organisers believe panel sessions may, not only break up the formal presentations but also provide a chance for audience participation. However they will only work if plans about timing are clearly laid out in advance and all the (limited number of) panellists are adequately briefed to know how to perform. Plus there needs to be a strong chair who is content to exercise a whip hand if things go awry.

Has anyone had better experiences of such sessions than I have observed through my own rather jaundiced eyes?


This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Getting the Most out of Panel Discussions

  1. ah says:

    I’ve not been to many panel discussions, but have been to ‘debates’ where conference organisers try to get 2 people with opposing theories to have an argument. Most of the time, both debaters are far too polite and avoid the controversial areas so much that they end up agreeing!

    A couple of conferences in my field do have a reputation for strong debates, even between people who ought to agree. That can make for a fun discussion, but can quickly get stuck in minutia and definitions. So it is hard to make it work either way.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    The method used at the Faraday Institute Summer school is to ask audience members to write their questions on a card and deposit it in a question box, with the Chairman then asking the question (although the audience member has an opportunity to follow up). If you schedule the session so that there is a coffee break before the panel discussion, this gives the Chairman time to sort through the questions and think about who to invite to answer the question if the questioner has not made it clear.

  3. Mark Field says:

    The more fun version of the panel discussion is the “rump session” sometimes seen in smaller US conferences, particularly engineering ones. This is always an evening session starting after dinner (9 pm seems to be a favourite time) and usually in reasonable proximity to a bar. The format is the same as the panel session, but the speakers are given a topic where they can be somewhat outrageous and are encouraged to do so.

    The speakers are deliberately picked to be well known to the audience and have strong opinions. A usual topic is to ask the speakers to speculate on future developments where the predictions can get as crazy as you like without reflecting on current disagreements which might get awkward. The whole evening then becomes a larger version of the discussion in the hotel bar with everyone getting to join in. In a good rump session the point where one panelist has made an outlandish proposition, and a professor in the audience known for being equally outrageous stands up to answer, can be electric.

    These sessions also spark interesting thoughts the day after as the exercise of putting together different extreme versions of ideas usually triggers a number of paths worth thinking through.
    The rump session only really works in smaller conferences where the audience mostly knows each other or has at least heard of the main participants.

  4. Bill Harvey says:

    First Athene, if you are aware of the sin it is unlikely you are a sinner. At a conference in Ravenna last month the first speaker took more then the total allotted time, the second then took half as long. The last two, having waited patiently said more in two sentences than the others had in an hour. Part of the problem is the academic tuned brain that sees 50 minutes as a standard speaking time.

Comments are closed.