How did awful panel discussions become the default format?

 at The Guardian: “With the occasional exception, my mood in conferences usually swings between boredom, despair and rage. The turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments, and usually not on topic. The chairs who abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. I end up dozing off, or furiously scribbling abuse in my notebook as a form of therapy, and hoping my neighbours can’t see what I’m writing. I probably look a bit unhinged…

This matters both because of the lost opportunity that badly run conferences represent, and because they cost money and time. I hope that if it was easy to fix, people would have done so already, but the fact is that the format is tired and unproductive.

For example, how did something as truly awful as panel discussions become the default format? They end up being a parade of people reading out papers, or they include terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words and illegible graphics. Can we try other formats, like speed dating (eg 10 people pitch their work for 2 minutes each, then each goes to a table and the audience hooks up (intellectually, I mean) with the ones they were interested in); world cafes; simulation games; joint tasks (eg come up with an infographic that explains X)? Anything, really. Yes ‘manels’ (male only panels – take the pledge here) are an outrage, but why not go for complete abolition, rather than mere gender balance?

Conferences frequently discuss evidence and results. So where is the evidence and results for the efficacy of conferences? Given the resources being ploughed into research on development (DFID alone spends about £350m a year), surely it would be a worthwhile investment, if it hasn’t already been done, to sponsor a research programme that runs multiple parallel experiments with different event formats, and compares the results in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event etc? At the very least, can they find or commission a systematic review on what the existing evidence says?

Feedback systems could really help. A public eBay-type ratings system to rank speakers/conferences would provide nice examples of good practice for people to draw on (and bad practice to avoid). Or why not go real-time and encourage instant audience feedback? OK, maybe Occupy-style thumbs up from the audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t would be a bit in-your-face for academe, but why not introduce a twitterwall to encourage the audience to interact with the speaker (perhaps with moderation to stop people testing the limits, as my LSE students did to Owen Barder last term)?

We need to get better at shaping the format to fit the the precise purpose of the conference. … if the best you can manage is ‘disseminating new research’ of ‘information sharing’, alarm bells should probably ring….(More)”.