My favourite sessions at barcamps tend to be those which are (directed) discussions on topics ranging from sex and gender to rural broadband. I love to engage with other participants during these moments, often playing devils advocate so that ideas and concepts are deeply justified and thought through. Oh, and I love to get my opinion across too! I always walk away from these sessions with a feeling of satisfaction, even if no conclusions have been reached and often feel both inspired by what other people have said, and hopeful that I have had some impact on others too. It really doesn’t matter if you are leading the discussion or not, everyone should have a chance to speak their mind.
On the flip side what seriously frustrates me about panels is that I have to watch a discussion take place, and despite the ability to ask questions I do not have a chance to engage in actual conversation with either panelists, or more importantly other attendees. I only attended one panel at SXSWi this year “What Guys Are Doing To Get More Girls Into Tech” (#moregirlsintech) and the frustration experienced by many attendees was evident through the hash tag stream on the giant screen. Many of us wanted to engage in discussion but had to resort to venting our frustration and disagreement through twitter.
Perhaps it’s the physical layout of the room. In the core conversation I attended “How Geeks Grabbed Philly By The Balls” (#geeksgrabbedphilly) the two core conversationalists were on the same level as the attendees, physically much closer, and encouraged to disrupt the process, whereas in the panel the panelists were on a raised platform at the front. That physical separation makes it much harder for the audience to become participants and engage with the panelists.
I’m fairly certain that this is not an issue of the conversationalists of panalists themselves. My amazing friend Alex Hillman was key to the Philly conversation and the panelists were also incredibly fascinating people, as was the modertor who did a very good job of fielding twitter queries where she could.
The panel I was on “Don’t Stop Believin’: How karaoke is going to change the world” (#dontstopbelievin) (slides) was not a conversation panel, but rather a set of 7 short and sweet presentations followed by questions and karaoke – and I think they key difference here is the presentation aspect. Let conversations be conversations and presentations be presentations, even if they have 7 people presenting. Panels muddy the water. They give you a taste of a conversation you can not be part of, and that frustrates me.
So my request to SXSWi 2011 is that they significantly ramp up the number core conversations they have by switching out some of the panels. There is no reason conversations can’t be guided and focused by a group of key conversationalists, nor is there any reasons presentations can’t be presented by several presenters. This is an interactive conference after all, so let’s get interactive where we can. Turn panelists into conversationalists by bringing them down to floor level and into the discussion. Minimise the gap (physical and virtual) between them and the attendees, and overall increase engagement. Everyone will benefit from this. And you might actually encourage me out of bed and into a session or two…