SPABC: The gladiatorial panel format

the format apparently allows enough time for presenters to take selfies mid-flow, it seems…

So, after much talk, we finally did the novel conference panel formats.

Now I’ve got a bit more space, and some data, I want to provide you with an initial write-up of each of them. Next week, I’ll go through the one that I think has more obvious potential – the flipped format – but today it’s going to be the gladiatorial model that gets the attention.

The format

The conceit – and I think that’s the right word here – is that a presenter starts off with three minutes to present, then the audience get to vote (by app/website) on whether they get another three minutes. This repeats up to a maximum of 12 minutes per paper.

The options I settled on for each round of voting were ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Yes, but…’, which I suggested to the audience would be a way of signalling a willingness to give time, but with a caution to up one’s game.

We ran the panel with four papers – including me – ordered randomly immediately beforehand, and we had about 18 in the audience.

How it unfolded on the day

The first bit of feedback from the audience was ‘why?’, as I explained the format to them, and that required a bit of an explanation about my intention to create a format where everyone was more engaged and where there was more interaction.

Each paper took a very different approach to the time issue:

  • I broke my presentation into four discrete blocks and, after the first one, got audience members to randomly pick the next one;
  • Viviane trailed the following section ahead of each vote;
  • Patrick used his opening two blocks to ask for more time so Johan could speak;
  • Mark used memes on the theme of convincing people, including a relabelled Vote Leave bus and a kitten with a gun to its head.

I’d say it was down to our top skills that we all got our full 12 minutes, but looking at the voting, there were only ever a couple of ‘no’ votes at any stage, from the dozen or so who voted.

Afterwards, we had the usual Q&A, a lot of which was about the format per se.

Feedback from the audience

The feedback on the day was rather ambivalent.

On the one hand, there were positive comments about it all being rather fun and engaging. One noted that he actually found himself attending to the papers much more than in a normal format, knowing that he’d get to vote very often.

The audience really liked that the papers all had a clear point in each block, so there was a very well-structured presentation of findings and discussion.

On the other – and much more – there was uncertainty that this all quite worked.

The entire notion of voting for more time was taken by some as rather rude: ‘we should be respecting colleague’s work even if it’s not well-presented’ was one comment. Certainly there seemed to be no real appetite to cut presenters short (although I’ll note my crack panel were all very good and experienced).

More practically, the three minute block was felt to be too short. ‘Presenters never got going before having to stop’ was the refrain, although opinion was divided on how long would be better.

Looking through the audience survey I ran, there was a feeling that it was noticeably more engaging and informative than a standard format panel.

Overall, people enjoyed it, but there wasn’t the impression they were going to rush out and try it at home.

Feedback from the presenters

Of the two panels, this was the one I was more concerned about beforehand.

This format really required a lot more thought about how to present in a way that was engaging to the audience – which I had to assume would be not that immediately willing to give me time – especially in terms of how to bundle material.

This was echoed by the other presenters, who all found their different ways through this, but not without a bit of a struggle.

That said, we all appreciated that it did do a very good job of making us focus on structure and presentation and there was a uniform feeling that it made for stronger presentations than would otherwise be the case.

Again, the block length was an issue: even I, with plenty of media experience of speaking to time, found it hard to keep to time and get in all I wanted to say.

It was also noticeable that we all found it a bit more stressful to present like this than normal. Yes it was a hot day in Lisbon, but we all seemed to have an extra sheen of sweat by the end.

And as Chair/presenter, I found I was super-busy, between keeping time, running the voting and the rest, so I found it a bit hard to take in everything that was being presented.

So, does it work?

The answer to this is a conditional ‘yes’. It works, but not really how I thought.

Rather than being about the audience, as I’d imagined, it was much more about the presenters. We all forestalled a lot of the potential criticism – as expressed by voting to cut us short – by making our presentations more engaging.

That meant clear points throughout and lots of consideration of what would be interesting for the audience, rather than just what we might be interested in ourselves. The rigour it imposed was helpful to us all, it seemed.

However, the voting did get in the way, especially as it became clear the audience wanted to give the full time allocation and hear the work behind the format.

If I were running it again like this, I’d probably switch to three blocks of five minutes, to allow more of a head of steam to build up.

Further ideas

From this format, a couple of other ones sprang out in the debrief conversation.

One would be to use a ‘worm‘ to track audience sentiment. This is a piece of software first developed in Australia and used in set-piece political debates. audience members can uptick or downtick individuals as they talk, which is then aggregated to produce a sentiment line that can be overlaid on the TV screen – and here your powerpoint.

I’ve not found yet software that does this – suggestions welcome – but it would remove the need for rounds of voting and provide instantaneous feedback on the presentation. I’m not sure whether we’d require people to stop talking if the line fell below a certain amount, since I’d assume the mere sight of a plunging line would have a strong effect on even the most hardened presenter.

The other idea would be much simpler and would be more of a structured format for presenting, building on the experience here. This would be a variant of PechaKucha, but with a fixed format of intermediate summary points at particular times.

Thus, you might require people to speak for 12 minutes, with summary slides each three minutes, i.e. just like the original format, but without the votes. Maybe you have an informal competition to see who keeps closest to the format to encourage people to stick to it.

Both have issues, but I’ll be coming back to them before too long, no doubt, so keep your eyes open for a request to come and try one out.