Today I had a post appear on ArtsHacker where I point out some general tips for organizing panel discussions. This covers everything from pre- and post-show chats to conference panels.
Essentially, the tips follow the same philosophy generally espoused for any sort of arts and culture event — make the environment about enriching the attendee experience rather than celebrating how awesome the people on the panel are. People are intentionally present at this conversation in the hopes of becoming better informed so the goal should be on removing any impediments to that. (And, after all, even those of us that produce and present events are audience members at some point, too. We are seeking the same enrichment.)
For discussions oriented on performances, it is all about facilitating meaningful conversations for the audience and then getting out of the way. One person I cite mentions that having performers present can inhibit a free flow conversation because people tend to censor themselves or focus on the performer rather than the performance. He suggests ways to involve performers so they don’t become the focus.
A dramaturg I quote suggests some questions that focus on the audience experience which can prevent audience members from feeling they are obligated to ask a question and resort to “How do you remember all those lines/notes/movements?”
For discussions that are the event rather than the complement to the event, the concept is very much the same. Don’t spend half the allotted time reading panelist bios and allowing them to make increasingly lengthy opening statements – keep introductions short and get right into a discussion between panelists that have real things to say to one another.
The panelists don’t have to be so diametrically opposed to each other that you need a security guard prepared to tackle them, but no one walks away with something new to consider if everyone is nodding in agreement with everyone else.
By the way, many of the same guidelines for panelists are suggested for questioners from the audience- run a disciplined Q&A with a strict time limit and ground rules stated in advance to prevent an escalating series of lengthy rants.
I am sure frequent conference attendees probably silently pray that most of these guidelines were applied to the sessions they attend.