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What’s Beyond Panels about?

#BeyondPanels is a call to design events that value and use the ideas and experience of all attendees. Specifically, it’s a response to the dominance of panel discussions in the event landscape – a design often used ‘by default’ without addressing its flaws, or the raft of alternatives that are as simple to run but avoid some of the problems a panel creates.

On Beyond Panels you will find resources for event designers, contributors and attendees, with practical tips to encourage more attendee-driven event design. For example, here’s a single-page comparative chart of 10 event designs to help you find one that works for you.

Why is this important?

Events have never been more precious. Real life dialogue with strangers can cut new paths through our digital filter bubbles and create rich, unexpected connections. Attendees at issue-led events may have academic, professional, lived or other forms of valuable and relevant expertise to contribute.

Any event is a significant resource investment: venue, promotion, planning, tech support, and the time and money attendees give up to be there. Event design represents a small part of this overall  investment and has a disproportionate impact on the outcomes. The design sets up the relationship of attendees to expert contributors, each other, and the agenda.

The panel discussion format currently dominates ‘idea-focused’ event planning (along with lectures). Inherent in the panel format is separation between contributors and audience (physically and in implied intellectual value), limited and clunky mechanisms for audience input, and suppression of between-audience interaction. For a more strident and comprehensive critique of panels, see this post.

Look at the following three pictures of panel discussions. Pay attention to their physical setup. Who are the experts? If you walked in as an attendee, what is implied to you about your role?

All three have different setups, which imply slightly different things. Compare them with this:

World Cafe.jpg

Both of these event designs- in this case, panel discussions and a World Cafe – can be guided by expert contributions; feature high profile guests; tackle difficult and complex questions; and involve discussion and exchange. However, the balance of each factor, the overall interactivity, the respect they grant to each attendee’s ability to contribute, and outcomes could be dramatically different.

That is a key message of #BeyondPanelsevent design underpins how attendees will act (or not). A standard panel setup – even if the facilitator states at the start “We want to get you involved, have a conversation” – is an unnatural and inefficient design for a flowing, open exchange of ideas.

Events as opportunities

Many panel-dominated events are times when dozens or hundreds of interested people came together, inspired by a topic, and didn’t have the opportunity to engage fully with each other. A golden hour (or two) that, perhaps, didn’t shine as brightly as it could have. I don’t want to lambast any particular event – there are myriad reasons why a given event is run a particular way – but I want people to recognise and nurture the potential live events have to be great.

Any person who comes to an event could make a valuable contribution. Thoughtful design can encourage and enable those contributions.

Outgrow the safety of habit. Make events active. Change the status quo. Go #BeyondPanels.

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