Monday, June 11, 2018

How should you stage a panel discussion at a conference?

I read an article by Rose Eveleth on June 5, 2018 at Motherboard titled Dear conference organizers: you’re doing chairs wrong and subtitled Nearly every femme-identifying person I know, myself included, has wrestled with tall bar stools, director’s chairs, and the dreaded microphone dance. The image of a panel discussion from 2016 for the film High on Crack Street shown above illustrates her problem. Directors chairs placed near the front of a stage are fine for men, but only work for women in slacks or in dresses that are almost ankle length (Amish-friendly or FLDS-friendly). Rose described having worn a knee-length dress and then being very uncomfortable sitting on a tall stool. Later in her article she quoted Trevor Knoblich of the Online News Association who said:

“We want our presenters focused on those important aspects,” Knoblich said. “They shouldn't have to worry that their clothes match the furniture fabric, or that their presentation is becoming an inadvertent sequel to Basic Instinct.” 

You can find the exhibitionist scene from that movie he alluded to in a 35-second video clip at The Sun that is definitely NOT suitable for work. Having your clothes accidentally match the furniture or background is a another problem I blogged about in a September 12, 2016 post titled Dress for success, not like a ninja.  

An older, more modest setup seats the panel behind tables with skirting or tablecloths, as is shown above in an image from a 1982 ComicCon. Who recommends the other setup without tables, and why? An article on May 23, 2013 by Brad Phillips at Mr. Media Training titled Six ways to electrify your next panel discussion did. His third and fourth points were:

“3. Remove The Table: The majority of panel discussions are conducted from behind a long table. Get rid of it. The table is a physical barrier that separates the panelists from the audience. Worse, it diminishes the speakers’ natural body language. Just try gesturing enthusiastically while seated in a hunched-over position at your desk, your elbows attached to the surface. Pretty hard, no?

4. Use Stools or Chairs Instead: I often encourage clients to position stools or chairs at the front of the stage. That set up conveys a more casual and inviting “living room” feeling—which is the reason all of the morning news show use it. This format allows you to use wireless microphones instead of table microphones.”

Rose’s article also mentioned doing ‘the microphone dance’ – about those wireless lapel microphones, with a cable leading to a transmitter (and battery pack) meant to fit on a men’s belt or a skirt, but not on a dress.    

Kristin Arnold was president of the National Speakers Association in 2010-2011, and in 2013 wrote a 38-page book titled Powerful Panels. There is a blog associated for that book, with a post on March 26, 2014 titled Get rid of the white, draped table at panel discussions, and one on April 5, 2014 titled In search of the perfect chair for panel discussions – in which she says:

“I like a tall, well-made, and sturdy director chair. They add an element of informality and conversational tone to the room. The shape of the chair almost forces the panelists to sit forward and be engaged. And, there is a place for your feet.”

Kristin also wrote an article in the April 2015 issue of Toastmaster magazine titled How to moderate a panel discussion in which she again said:

“….You don’t have to settle for the typical long, draped table. Why not spice it up using a popular television-talk-show format?”

Both the skirt-length and microphone issues are mentioned in a better five-page article dated August 2017 from The Urban Institute and titled Best Practices for Moderators. If in doubt, women should bring back-up slacks.

1 comment:

Kristin Arnold said...

Thanks for the shout out, Richard! I think you bring up some great points. Bottom line: in your pre-panel discussions/email, tell your panelists what kind of chairs they will be sitting on. Whether they will be on a riser (or not). What the background will be. Then the panelists can make a decision as to what they will wear.