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I Give Good Panel August 5, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in facilitation, presentations, Uncategorized.
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Eye of the Storm eyetracking panel

Facilitating the panel at IUE '10

I’m just back from the 6th annual Internet User Experience conference in Ann Arbor.  It was a nice regional conference, and I gained some valuable insights, including this one about myself:

I give good panel.

Let me explain.


A couple months ago I participated in a panel on the use of eye-tracking in usability and user research at the UPA International Conference in Munich. Feedback on the panel was mixed; some of the presenters were very dry and academic, while others were exploring a niche so narrow that audience members struggled to relate. There was also a problem with the format of the panel. Each panelist gave a short presentation on their research, but because there were six of us, we had to rush like mad to describe our work in only seven minutes and we still took up more than half of the 90-minute panel with prepared slides. Questions were deferred until after the last presenter, by which time the topic of the first was mostly forgotten.

panelists at UPA

When the feedback forms were collected, I was very pleased that some of the most favorable comments related to my presentation and my interaction with the audience. I think this was because I described a methodology rather than a specific study, pitching the benefits but leaving room for debate and further explanation. It wasn’t much different from some of the participatory design workshops I’ve done, where a scenario and a solution are presented to a group of experts to solicit their reactions.

A-HA! I think I might be on to something….

SS,DD (Same Subject, Different Delivery)

Following the UPA panel, I was asked by the sponsor if I would moderate a similar panel at a regional conference. Despite some of the frustrations of the panel in Munich, I enjoyed being a part of the discussion, and this would be an opportunity to work with some of my fellow panelists again as well as some other experts on the subject. It would also be an opportunity to change the format from a series of talking heads to something more harmonious with my personality, something like a cross-breed of the Meet the Press and Coney Island.


The first and most obvious step was to eliminate the presentations. People attending a panel come with their own ideas and questions. Piling on a smorgasbord of slides is like bringing coals to Newcastle. Eliminating scripted presentations gives you a lot more time to work with, which means more people can participate and more topics can be explored.

Eliminating slide presentations opened the door for me to eliminate slides altogether. I considered allowing each panelist to create a single “introduction” slide, but then I thought about my favorite part of every conference I’ve ever attended…the parties, dinners, and receptions that happen after the projector bulbs go dark. Nobody brings a slide deck to introduce himself, and business cards don’t usually come out until a rapport is established. Instead of slides, I decided on a flip-chart where each panelist could put their twitter handle or email address. This way audience members could get to know each panelist not by what they say about themselves, but by what they say.


On the same flip-chart, I outlined the format for the discussion. The formula looked like this:


…which stands for:

Question+Answer+Argue+Digress+Pontificate+Argue some more…

Writing down the format or rules of engagement is helpful when a discussion begins to take on a life of its own…and not in a good way, sort of like Kiefer Sutherland in “The Lost Boys”.

“I’m sorry, Dave, but we’ve already pontificated. It’s time to argue some more.”
“You’re skipping ahead to digress, Karen. We haven’t argued yet.”

It sounds cheeky, but it works.


The next thing to do is to encourage the audience to participate. In Ann Arbor, I used ducks.

It doesn’t really matter what you use. The idea is to give audience members a tangible marker of their participation. When they see that others have something and they do not, even the most reticent wallflower will feel an increased urge to participate. There’s one more thing you’ll want to have on hand before you begin, and that’s a list of scripted questions to use in case discussion stalls. You can create this on your own based on an understanding of the subject, or you can solicit topics from your panelists. Just make sure that the questions or topics are provocative; too basic a question deflates the intensity of the session, and too specific a question alienates a lot of the audience.


Once the room is full and people have started to find their seats on their own, it’s time to start the session. Call the meeting to order using whatever attention-getting devices you have (flicking the lights, air horn, fan dance) and welcome the audience. Introduce the topic first, then yourself. Then introduce your panelists in the order they are seated; this will help audience members who may not know everyone to remember names. Addressing each other by name keeps the conversation fluid; nobody is struggling with recall or the formalized sentence structure that comes with not knowing that Steve is, well, “Steve”.

Now the fun begins.


No matter what kind of presentation I’m doing, I love to start with a quick bodystorm. I got the idea from the session on Agile Interaction Design at the first IxDA conference; it was a great way to get a sense of the attitudes and expertise of your audience, and it also creates a more “kinetic” environment. If your physical space allows for it, try to include the panel members; even though they are aligned on a topic, it is interesting to see how they rate in comparison to the audience. Once you get a read on the crowd, invite everyone to take their seats and start the discussion.

Opening bodystorm at the IUE panel

Opening bodystorm at the IUE panel


If your topic is fairly broad or you’re confident that your audience understands the problem space, jump right into taking questions from the audience. If the audience is a chorus of crickets, then go to your list; pick something juicy to get the ball rolling. Look for cues of interest or a desire to answer from your panelists, and invite one to respond by name. Try to make sure that you get at least two panelists to respond to any question or comment before turning back to the audience, but be cautious of letting the panelists get stale agreeing with each other or dividing on an issue. Once you have a couple of viable points of conversation, redirect to the audience.

When you cast your attention back to the audience, try to be specific about what you’re seeking response to. If there’s a divisive issue, take a straw poll or choose a person to ask their feedback. Refer to your notes (you are taking notes, aren’t you?) for points previously made that are relevant. In short, edit the story on the fly.

That’s what it really comes down to, in the end. People remember stories, not experiences, and the extent to which you can call upon your understanding of the subject and all your research-facilitation mojo to synthesize the experience in real time into a meaningful narrative, the more memorable and therefore valuable it will be.

Oh, and the ducks are a pretty good mnemonic too.

What has been your favorite…or least favorite…panel experience? Please share your comments.