Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.
I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)
But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?
Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.
For years I’ve been successfully facilitating in-person group discussions at meetings, using the simple fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich processes. These techniques work because at any moment, only a small, clearly defined, (but constantly changing) group of people are involved in the discussion. As a result you can moderate an interesting, orderly discussion with hundreds of people, any of who have an equal opportunity to speak.
Online group discussions bring a new set of challenges.
We have all experienced poorly facilitated online meetings, where people unilaterally turn on their microphones and speak away, colliding aurally with others and monopolizing the conversation. An experienced moderator can minimize this behavior with a starting set of clear agreements that participants will follow during the discussion.
But however good the facilitation, there is far less environmental and body language information available online than in-person. The subtle cues we’ve all learned for moving between listening and speaking in a conversation are largely absent. (Stephen Mugford and Pamela Kinnear go into more detail here.) This makes creating a useful, flowing discussion harder.
Existing solutions and their limitations
Some of the fancier online meeting platforms provide functionality that can support simple fishbowl process quite well. Typically they use the “panel on a stage” model. A moderator moves audience members who raise their hand in some fashion into a panel (speaking) seat. When people have finished speaking, they leave the stage and the moderator can fill their seat with someone else.
Currently, though, such platforms don’t make it easy to move people in and out of pair or trio share groups: a requirement for the “bread” portions of the fishbowl sandwich.
One of the reasons I like to use Zoom for online meetings is its reliable and easy ability to quickly move people into breakout room groups for sharing. Zoom is a great tool for a discussion session’s opening and closing small-group fishbowl sandwich sharing. But how can we moderate discussion amongst a sea of faces during the fishbowl itself?
How to effectively hold a discussion online in Zoom
I’m indebted to Stephen Mugford for suggesting a simple and effective way of moderating fishbowl in Zoom.
In-person fishbowls use “people sitting in the 3 – 5 chairs up front, facing the group” to indicate who can speak at any moment. For a Zoom discussion, the same delineation can be made. Simply ask everyone except the facilitator/moderator to turn off their camera and microphone at the start.
When someone wants to speak, they turn on their camera and microphone. A nice feature of Zoom is that their picture will then jump to the top of Zoom’s speaker or gallery view. This makes them easy to spot.
The moderator guides the order of speaking and discussion with those who are “live” in the usual way. When people have finished sharing for the moment, they turn off their video/microphone and return to listening.
Sometimes when I run a fishbowl in person there are many who want to speak. I have them queue up in a short line at the side of the chairs. That provides feedback to the folks in the chairs that maybe it’s time to give someone else a turn!
Similarly, you can use Zoom’s text chat to queue up people who wish to enter the fishbowl. This allows:
those who are calling in by phone to signal they want to speak; and
the facilitator and group to see how many people are waiting to speak.
In practice, I’ve found the suggested live/listening camera/microphone protocol works very well. I only add using text chat as a signaling channel when there are participants who are calling in by phone.
This is a simple and successful way to implement fishbowl and fishbowl sandwich discussion process in Zoom. I recommend you try it! And if you have used other platforms to run these processes successfully, please share in the comments below!
What’s the best way to facilitate a community discussion? Recently, I had to answer that question at short notice. My task: design and facilitate a two-hour community discussion in response to a bombshell announcement made by the largest employer in my tiny rural hometown of Marlboro, Vermont.
[Update: Want to know how to do this online? See this post!]
The community was in shock. Consequently, I felt it was important to use a discussion format that:
Supported respectful dialog from a variety of constituencies;
Created an environment that was as safe as possible for people to share;
Minimized the likelihood that people would monopolize the meeting;
Allowed both short statements and controlled impromptu conversations; and
In less than three minutes, you can improve almost any conference sessions with pair share (aka think-pair-share). The technique is simple: after pairing up participants and providing a short period for individual thinking about an appropriate topic, each pair member takes a minute in turn to share their thoughts with their partner. (More details can be found in Chapter 38 of The Power of Participation.)
Pair share is not the same as conversation, because pair share gives each person an exclusive minute of active sharing and a minute of pure listening. This balance rarely occurs during conversation, because typically:
One party speaks more than another, and;
Whoever isn’t speaking is often not fully listening to what is being said because they’re thinking about something they want to say themselves.
Improve conference sessions
Pair share improves conference sessions by:
Resetting every participant’s brain to a state of active engagement;
Providing structured opportunities for participants to share expertise and experience with their partner, and (if built into the subsequent session design) with others in the room; and
Each assigned topic must be central to the session’s purpose;
If the session is presenter-content heavy, hold a pair share roughly every ten minutes to explore and consolidate participant learning; and
Design the session to build on relevant expertise and experience uncovered by each pair-share.
I also like to incorporate a closing pair-share where partners each share three takeaways they’ve acquired during the session. I’ve found that when I use this in a session design like the fishbowl sandwich, participants inevitably stay around deep in conversation after the session is officially over. (That always looks and feels good!)
Finally, you can use pair share as a tool for introductions. Invite everyone to pair up with someone they don’t know and have each person take a minute to introduce themselves to their partner.
Improve conference sessions with pair share: it’s quick, simple, versatile, and effective. Use it!
How do you use pair share? Share with everyone in the comments below!
I guarantee you will learn many new great ideas about conference panels from this Blab of my Thursday chat with the wonderful Kristin Arnold. I’ve annotated it so you can jump to the good bits . (But it’s pretty much all good bits, so you may find yourself watching the whole thing. Scroll down the whole list; there are many advice gems, excellent stories and parables, folks show up at our homes, Kristin sings, etc.!) With many thanks to Kristin and our viewers (especially Kiki L’Italien who contributed mightily) I now offer you the AMA About Conference Panels annotated time-line.
[Before I turned on recording] We talked about: what panels are and aren’t; the jobs of a moderator; panel design issues; some panel formats; and our favorite panel size (Kristin and I agree on 3).
[0:00] Types of moderator questions.
[1:30] Using sli.do to crowdsource audience questions.
[2:40] Panel moderator toolboxes. One of Kristin’s favorite tools: The Newlywed Game. “What word pops into your mind when you think of [panel topic]?”
[4:30] Audience interaction, bringing audience members up to have a conversation; The Empty Chair.
[6:00] Preparing panelists for the panel.
[9:10] Other kinds of panel formats: Hot Seat, controversial topics.
[12:00] Continuum/human spectrograms/body voting and how to incorporate into panels.
[13:50] Panelist selection.
[14:40] Asking panelists for three messages.
[16:30] How the quality of a moderator affects the entire panel.
[17:30] More on choosing panelists.
[18:30] How to provoke memorable moments during panels; Kristin gives two examples involving “bacon” and “flaw-some“.
[20:30] Panelist homework. Memorable phrases: “The phrase that pays“; Sally Hogshead example.
[23:00] Panelists asking for help. Making them look good.
[24:10] Warming up the audience. The fishbowl sandwich: using pair-share as a fishbowl opener.
[25:30] Other ways to warm up an audience: pre-panel mingling, questions on the wall, striking room sets.
I’m in San Antonio, Texas, having just run two 90-minute “panels” at a national association leadership conference. I say “panels” because at both sessions, the three “panelists” presented for less than five minutes. Yet after both sessions, participants stayed in the room talking in small groups for a long time. That’s one of my favorite signs that a session has successfully built and supported learning, connection, and engagement.
You may be wondering how to effectively structure a panel where the panelists don’t necessarily dominate the proceedings. How can we let attendees contribute and steer content and discussion in the ways they want and need? There’s no one “best” way to do this of course, but here’s the format I used for these two particular sessions.
Each session was designed to discover and meet wants and needs of the executive officers and volunteers of the association’s regional chapters’ members in an area of special interest. The first session focused on a key fund-raising event used by all of the participants. The second covered the more general topic of chapter fundraising and sponsorship.
Room set has a huge effect on the dynamics of a session. Previous sessions in our room had used head tables with table mikes and straight row theater seating (ugh; well, at least it was set to the long edge of the thin room.) I had the tables removed, the mikes replaced with hand mikes, and the chairs set to curved rows. We included plenty of aisles so that anyone could easily get to the front to speak (see below).
Welcome and a fishbowl sandwich
After a brief welcome and overview, I began a four-chair fishbowl sandwich format, which turns every attendee into a participant right at the start, and ensures that they end participating too. This format is my favorite way to create amazing panels. Fishbowl allows control over who is speaking by having them move to a chair at the front of the room. Check the link for a description of this simple but effective way to bring participation into a “panel”.
Next, I used body voting, to give participants relevant information about who else was in the room. For example, I had everyone line up in order of chapter size, so people could:
discover where they fit in the range of chapters present (from 80 to 2,600 members);
meet participants whose chapters were similar in size to their own; and
give everyone a sense of the distribution of chapter sizes represented.
Additional body votes uncovered information about:
revenue contributions from dues, events, and sponsorship;
promotional modalities used;
member fees; and
other issues related to the session topic.
I also gave participants the opportunity to ask for additional information about their peers in the room. This is another powerful way for participants to discover early on that they can determine what happens during their time together. I used appropriate participatory voting techniques (see also here, and here) to get answers to the multiple requests that were made.
Several weeks before the conference, I scheduled separate 30-minute interviews with the six panelists to educate myself about the issues surrounding the session topics and to discover what they could bring to the sessions that would likely be interesting and useful for their audience. After the interviews were complete, I reviewed our conversations and determined that each panelist could share the core of their contributions in five minutes. So I asked each panelist to prepare a five-minute (maximum!) talk that covered the main points they wanted to make.
During the first session I brought up the panelists to the front of the room individually. As each panelist gave their talk, I allowed questions from the audience, and, as I should have expected, each panelist’s five minutes expanded (by a few minutes) as they responded to the questions. So for the second session, I tried something different. All three panelists sat together with me, and I asked the audience to hold questions until all three had finished. Each panelist gave a five-minute presentation, and then I facilitated the questions that followed.
In my opinion, having only one panelist at the front of the room at a time creates a more dynamic experience. But on balance, I think the second approach worked better as there was some overlap between what the panelists shared, and when questions ended there was a more natural segue to the next segment of the session.
At this point we switched to a fishbowl format. I had the panelists return to front row audience chairs, from where they could easily return to the “speaking” chairs. (They were frequent contributors to the discussions that followed.) I identified some hot issues, and listed them for participants. I then invited anyone to sit in one of the three empty front-of-the-room chairs next to me to share their innovations, solutions, thoughts, questions, and concerns. Anyone wishing to respond or discuss joined our set of chairs and I facilitated the resulting flow of conversation. Some of the themes I suggested were discussed. But a significant portion of the discussion in both sessions concentrated on areas that none of my panelists had predicted.
The capability of fishbowl process to adapt to whatever participants actually want to talk about is one of its most attractive and powerful features. If I had used a conventional panel for either session, much more time would have been spent on topics that were not what the audience most wanted to learn about, and unexpected interests would have been relegated to closing Q&A.
During my opening overview of the format, I explained that we might have time for some consulting on a participant’s problem towards the end of the session. We didn’t have time for this during the first session — given a break, we could have probably taken another hour exploring issues that had been raised — but we had a nice opportunity during the second session to consult on an issue for a relatively new executive officer.
Another option that I offered, which we didn’t end up exploring in either session, was to share lessons learned (aka “don’t do this!”) — a useful way to help peers avoid common mistakes.
With a few minutes remaining, I closed the fishbowl and asked participants to once again form pairs and share their takeaways from the session. The resulting hubbub continued long after the sessions were formally over, and I had to raise my voice to thank everyone for their contributions and declare the sessions complete.
When an audience collectively has significantly more experience and expertise than a few panelists — as was the case for these sessions (and a majority of the sessions I’ve attended during forty years of conferences) — well-facilitated formats like the one I’ve just described are far more valuable to participants than the conventional presentations and panels we’ve all suffered through over the years. Use them to create amazing panels, and your attendees will thank you!