Virtual panel discussions: 5 levels of “connection” created by thinking like a UX designer

Panel discussions have probably been around in some form or another for as long as there have been groups of people assembling.

Sadly, though, as pointed out in The Panel Discussion Report: A 2014 Snapshot on the Effectiveness of Panel Discussions at Meetings, Conferences & Conventions, close to 2/3 of audience members rate them as just “okay” or worse.

Now you compound that issue by putting said panel discussion into a shorter attention span format (e.g., virtual events, conferences). So if you don’t purposefully design something different, you’ll deliver what everyone else is – and the research suggests that it may not really engage the way you probably hope to.

Here’s the good news: Panel discussions aren’t hard, but they are different. And what follows is going to be different in approach – a focus on categories of connection as a basis for thinking through “UX.” UX is “user experience.” It’s a way of thinking about design.

Virtual panel discussions: what is given

Some elements of virtual panel discussions are so elementary that we’ll call them ‘the givens.’ It is a given that you

  • Know who your audience is
  • Select a topic that’s interesting
  • Select a panel that represents viewpoint diversity if not other forms of diversity

Finally, it should be a given that it’s the selection of the moderator that makes or breaks a panel. They’re the glue that provides compelling intros and outros, distributes questions, manages time. Ideally they are excellent at transitions and callbacks.

But now let’s think about this in the virtual world. In most cases, the audience’s UX is passive, live watching television. And it’s likely that your panel isn’t quite as riveted-to-the-screen exciting as Gandalf taking on the balrog.

I contend, then, that the path to excellence is more in terms of thinking about connectorship…your skill in connecting the audience psychosocially to various elements that are possible…and usually unused or underutilized.

Virtual panel discussions: what creates value?

When I served as president of National Speakers Association of Oregon, I told my board the principle which I believe undergirds many, if not most conferences (and particularly for associations):

People show up for content, but they stay for people.

Put another way: Your audience can get content anywhere, and they can get it inexpensively or for free. Yet there are three important things they pay for:

  1. Social interactions and being part of a community
  2. The ability to ask a question of an expert
  3. And sometimes the certificate of completion.

And the last point makes my above point…I can get a master’s-level education for dang near free, but I pay good money to get the continuing ed credit or the diploma that says ‘been there done that.’

So if you want to create value beyond the content itself, remember this: optimization drives valuation.

Virtual panel discussions: five levels of connection

If the above argument – people show up for content, but they stay for people – is true, then it becomes quickly clear that the power of meeting virtually is more than just reach…it’s still about making space for people to connect with each other.

In terms of virtual panel discussions (or any virtual communication for that matter), I think about connection in terms of five levels:

Level 1 connection = technical

It may go without saying, but this is the ability for each attendee to “show up.” I’d include functional tech in this level – ability to see and hear – and operational.

Think through: Will participants be at their desk or mobile? If the former, will they be on the same size display (like employees at the same company) or potentially different sizes? If the latter, how does our platform support that? Is there an option to dial in on a regular telephone number? What, if any, data needs to be collected (e.g., polling) and if so, how will that be used (i.e., in real time to inform the discussion? After the fact to support follow up? Or certification?)? How do we want them to interact with each other (see Level 5)?

Level 2 connection = interestingness

“Interesting” may mean different things to different people, of course. It may be fascinating, but it may be interesting because it relates to job success. Or achievement of an outcome like “earn my requisite continuing education credits” this year (which, as many professionals in fields that have continuing ed requirements will tell you, might be a check box).

Think through: Does the panel’s content address felt (vs latent) needs? Is What part of the “who” you’re inviting to be on the panel is interesting (e.g., celebrity, credentials, viewpoint or other forms of diversity, etc.)?

Level 3 connection = skillful delivery

A frequent question I get asked, particularly of trainers, is “I work in a boring field, how do I make it more interesting?” And when I’m feeling snarky I say, “There is no boring content, there are only boring trainers.” Just like a storyteller can make or break the story based on the telling, so can and do trainers, subject matter experts, and various other deliverers of content.

Think through: Are we willing to engage a professional moderator? How will introductions and transitions occur? Are content sub-sections timed? Will you require participants to include a dry run/walk through/prep session in their schedule? What’s the backup plan in terms of technical or personnel failure? Do invited subject matter experts need coaching to improve their presence? Does the moderator have permission to frankly provide feedback, manage those who are too talkative, etc.?

Level 4 connection = interactive delivery

Remember that the word educate comes from a root meaning “to lead or draw out.” It doesn’t mean “pound more crap in.”  Of course there is time for lecture or stage-to-audience delivery, but a key principle of andragogy (the art/science of adult learning) is activity (vs passivity). Involved learners and audiences pay better attention and retain more information.

Think through: What’s the plan for including the audience? Will questions actually be used? How will you create a sense of “presence” for audience members so they feel seen? Are there things that can be shared in alternative means (e.g., dropping a hot link to bonus or supplemental material into chat)? Will interaction at the end or throughout (which is more engaging!)? What’s the balance between formal/planned content or discussion and informal/on-the-fly? In other words, are you open to “crowdsourcing” input that would actually shape the flow the panel discussion? If so, how will you do that (and still manage to time, appropriately involve panelists, etc.)?

Level 5 connection = peer-to-peer interaction

To be fair, there is a significant contextual component here. For instance, an important part of value at a conference is connecting with peers over lunch, the afternoon cookie break, or networking after hours at the bar. In other words, the hallway chat.

Think through: If people show up for content, but stay for people, what is the plan to increase the likelihood that they interact with other participants? If not directly during the panel, might that be motivated by the panel to happen at another time (i.e., “during the lunch break that immediately follows, grab your lunch and join a ‘birds of a feather’ breakout session to discuss XYZ in greater detail)?

The bottom line

Virtual panel discussions are obviously not the same context as a class that might involve something like hands-on demonstration of competencies via role plays/teach backs, so don’t expect them to be.

That said, pursuant to an early thesis in this post, it’s likely that unless you’re purposeful about it, virtual panel discussions will be passive, talking-head experiences (that may not even have the “interestingness” of slides changing the view). But it doesn’t have to be that way! It may go without saying, but the lynchpin is typically a skilled moderator who gets involved with strategy and design early.

Finally, here’s one thing that’s particularly beautiful about doing these virtually: every participant has a front row seat. The opportunity to differentiate your panel by really connecting with each person is significant. It’s not hard, it just requires skillfully employing a different approach.

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