Question Time Panel

12 May 2004

I've attended lots of panels at conferences, and organized a couple myself. When I organize one, I like to use a particular format based on the British TV current affairs panel "Question Time". I've done it a couple of times and much prefer it to the traditional panel.

Most traditional panels I go to have a group of panelists where about half the time is spent with the panelists giving their individual positions and the other half taking questions from the floor. There's a couple of things I'm not so keen on with this kind of panel.

  • I find the panelists position statements much less interesting than the discussion based on questions. It's the interaction on the panels that's the point.
  • The questions come from all over the place - many of them are not interesting and interesting issues are rarely discussed in depth.

As usual the Question Time Panel has a group of panelists and a moderator. For this format the moderator should not give opinions on the questions, I concentrate only on making the panel flow - which is quite enough to do. I also need a couple of people with wireless microphones to work the crowd.

The panel begins with me introducing its strange format (essentially giving the information here). In particular I explain how the questions get asked.

Next I introduce the panelists. I only introduce them briefly and then move directly into the questions - so I completely cut out the opening positions which gives us more time for the discussion.

In order to get good questions I ask all questions to be submitted by writing them down on an index card. The card should state the question and the name of questioner. The questions can come at any time during the panel. As the panel rolls I look through the questions and decide which ones to take in what order. This way I can prioritize the questions to get the most interesting issues discussed with a reasonable flow.

Because it may take a while to get the first questions, I like to badger a couple of people in the audience to submit questions before we begin. That way I have a question or two to start off the panel. Actually I've only needed one, plenty more questions come while it's being discussed.

When I pick a question I ask the questioner to ask it from the floor. This is important to get a discussion between the audience and the panel. I then ask each panelist in turn to comment. I usually let each panelist speak once, varying the order between questions. Once the panelists have had their say I ask the original questioner to comment. After that I invite random comments on that question from the floor.

I like to get a good discussion on each question, so roughly ten minutes per question is a reasonable amount. I'd rather a good discussion on fewer questions than try to deal with everything.

Traditionally (at least when I watched it a decade ago) Question Time would always finish with a humorous question, I try to encourage someone to think something up in advance - it makes a nice light finish to the panel.