On Programming and Panels

I think they picked me to be Chairbeing because I'm too tall to hide in a crowd, so the rest of the ConCom knows they'll be able to hunt me down when they need to. But hey, as long as I'm _le Grande Fromage,_ I'll go ahead and have some more opinions. Let me tell you about convention programming, and what I think is a pretty easy way to improve it, at any convention.

I think programming items can be separated into five distinct categories: presentations, debates, panels, Q&A, and discussions. As I define each one, you might think I'm stating the obvious, but as I'll discuss later, a lack of concious awareness of these categories sometimes badly cripples programming at conventions.

Presentations are pretty simple. There's something up front, and there's an audience. A lecture about what's new in nanotechnology, an artist GoH slide show, and a Masquerade are all presentations. The audience sits and listens.

A debate involves sides. One or more people take a position and argue it. One of the hallmarks is that the participants may well not actually believe the position they're taking, and again, the audience sits and listens. This form is rarely seen at conventions.

A panel differs from debate in that the panelists don't have to disagree, and if they take a position, it's usually because they believe it. Panels are far and away the most common format for daytime convention programming. The audience, by the way, is still sitting and listening.

We finally allow some audience participation with Question and Answer. Some audience member is called upon, and after some rambling and explanation, they pose a question, which the person or people up front attempt to answer.

Finally, discussion, characterized by one audience member making a statement, and receiving a response from another audience member.

Yes, I know, in the real world programming items often combine these. A presentation followed by Q&A, or a panel that starts taking questions and then becomes a discussion. There's no problem with that.

The trap that afflicts so much convention programming is that almost all day programming is set up as if it's going to be a panel, but con-goers usually find the discussion the most fun. How many times have you gone to programming where the audience was clearly dying to comment, but the panelists just kept talking among themselves? Or the panelists started off by wondering aloud why they were even there? Or it turned out that there were a number of audience members far more qualified to discuss the topic than the panelists? A good moderator knows (usually instinctively) when to switch from the panel format to something else, but sometimes you don't get a good moderator, or there isn't one at all. I think that both program participants and attendees would be well served by knowing ahead of time what format is intended for a particular program item.

Remember that "discussion" is the most-liked format? You don't need a row of panelists in the front to have a discussion. You usually need a moderator, and that's it. A programming room designed to house discussions would have all the chairs in circles, not rows, and the moderator just shows up to get the conversation started and to recognize people so that everybody gets a chance to speak. You might want to "seed" the audience with "program participants," but you might not need to.

This explicit division of formats also answers a lot of implicit unhappiness. If somebody loves those chatty panels, then they may choose a slightly less interesting program item (to them) that's labelled "Discussion" over a more interesting item that's described as "Presentation with Q&A." Conversely, somebody who really wants to learn more about becoming a Big Name Author will be drawn to "Breaking Into Publishing: Panel" because they know that the names listed will be doing all of the talking, and they won't have to sit and listen to too many long winded diatribes from audience members.

Oh, sure, some panels will run out of things to say before the time is up, and either disband early (yea, right), or transform into discussions, just like they do now. Nevertheless, I think being aware of the various formats, programming for a variety of them, and informing attendees about the intended format of a particular program item, would overall be a Very Good Thing.