A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

Chain Reaction panel

Most of the conferences we attend have content in two formats: presentations, and panels. The presentations are monologues, talking-head experts who are hopefully interesting to listen to. The panels can be great, particularly if they’re controversial, but more often than not they’re just a chance for several folks to take the stage.

Here’s a slightly different format that’s worked well for me in the past, and which we’ll be using at some of the conferences I’m involved in in the coming months. It’s called a Chain Reaction panel, after the BBC series of the same name.

It’s deceptively simple, but it can have great effect. Instead of everyone on a panel taking the stage at once, each speaker takes the role of interviewer and interviewee. Over the course of the session, the audience sees brief conversations between pairs of panelists, and the discussion unfolds. It works best when a moderator is the “anchor” of the discussion, interviewing the first panelist and summarizing at the end.

Imagine that you have five panelists, A through E, and a fifty-minute slot. A is the moderator or independent.

  • From 0:00 to 0:10, A interviews B
  • From 0:10 to 0:20, B interviews C
  • From 0:20 to 0:30, C interviews D
  • From 0:30 to 0:40, D interviews E
  • From 0:40 to 0:50, E interviews A

The result is a series of 10-minute dialogues, which will follow the theme set out by the moderator in the first 10 minutes (but can go anywhere.) In the last 10 minutes, the moderator summarizes and thanks the participants.

This works well for a number of reasons.

  • The panelists will have a hard time selling from the stage, particularly if they’re with other vendors who have differing views.
  • The moderator gets the first and last word, but isn’t controlling the discussion so much that they monopolize it.
  • Everyone gets a decent chunk of limelight, because they’re on stage for 20 minutes without fighting for microphones.

This is another alternative to traditional panels, alongside the Oxford Style Debate, that can introduce variety into a lineup and keep things fresh for both the audience and the speakers.