XXIX.6 November - December 2022
Page: 8
Digital Citation

Using technology to improve communication in panels

Jonathan Grudin

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Panels can be fun to develop—they can also be much more effectively executed. This spring I was on two large panels that were the best organized of any I've participated in. Technology was used in advance to reduce psychological uncertainties, which increased interaction and kept us focused on our message. Expectations were exceeded. Both of the panels were in person, but the method is even more promising for hybrid panels.

The first panel was organized by SIGCHI Adjunct Chair for Partnerships Susan Dray and VP of Finance Andrew Kun to discuss CHI's 40th anniversary. Structure that one might assume would squeeze out liveliness instead promoted it. Impressed by its success, I reprised the method in another 90-minute panel at my Reed College class reunion. These are only two data points, but the underlying psychology is compelling, especially for large panels and future hybrid panels.

The 40th anniversary panel (see page 24 for a discussion) was an exceptionally diverse group of eight, plus Andrew as moderator. Our backgrounds, interests, and priorities differed substantially. Forty years earlier, one of us wasn't yet in school and only one was involved with CHI. Yet we wanted to avoid eight 10-minute talks—we wanted to engage with one another.

Andrew's solution was to address psychological barriers to effective time management that I had never noticed. Panelists like to talk. The trick: Make it possible for panelists to avoid saying more than they really want to.


A large panel should minimize moderator control onstage to give panelists time to get their points across, but if panelists are undirected, meandering and a lack of coherence are inevitable. Andrew directed the panel, but he did so in advance, which greatly reduced the cognitive effort required of panelists at the event.

back to top  Before the Event

Weeks in advance, Andrew shared a Google Doc that asked panelists to draft text for four sections:

  • A bio
  • A two-minute opening statement or "provocation"
  • One or two questions from each of us directed to another panelist (encouraged to ensure that each panelist was asked at least one question)
  • A one-minute concluding summary.

Two virtual meeting deadlines ensured that we completed drafts in a timely fashion. Everything could be revised up to the event, but Andrew could also sequence opening statements early to create a coherent topic flow. Seeing one another's drafts and the presentation sequence enabled us to keep statements to the same length, reduce redundancy, share terminology, and shape questions and summaries.

Andrew [Kun] directed the panel, but did so in advance, which greatly reduced the cognitive effort required of panelists at the event.

Seeing a question that would come our way in advance, we could organize a response, but responses were not shared. They were fresh to other panelists at the event, and anyone could contribute thoughts if the initial respondent didn't cover them.

back to top  At the Event

We had crafted crisp bios that Andrew read to introduce us. Our opening statements were practiced, fluent, and within the allotted two minutes.

The key innovation was the handling of the Q&A. Andrew had carefully thought through the questions and prepared a sequence of invitations. For example, "Daria, do you have a question for another panelist?"

The crucial point: We knew that Andrew was always ready to solicit the next question. Think of your experiences on a panel. Panelists are often unsure about the best way to continue and keep the discussion going. This leads to fuzziness or discontinuities. Three scenarios:

  • I ask a question and receive a satisfactory response. If I have nothing to add, I'm in a bind. Not knowing whether someone else will jump in if I stay silent, I often politely respond or ask an unnecessary follow-up question to keep the conversation going. In our event, I could pause and glance at Andrew. If no one immediately spoke, he moved on: "Tamara, do you have a question for another panelist?"
  • There is a pause in the discussion. Has the current topic been covered adequately? I haven't spoken yet. Should I break the silence, even if what I will add is mostly to agree or digress? At our event, there was no pressure to do this. Andrew was ready to break the silence and move on to the next cogent question.
  • A topic is exhausted. It's clearly time to move on. I have a very different topic, but someone else may have a more relevant continuation. Should I jump in? In our panel, we could leave graceful transitions to Andrew, knowing that our question would get its turn. Andrew was following the discussion and knew the range of questions remaining.

I felt that a cognitive load had been lifted—it was great! The navigation of conversational conventions adds many small efforts that compete with focusing on what is said and the overall topic. There were no space-filler comments as we engaged with one another.

I'd initially thought that although structure might be necessary for an eight-person panel, it would sound scripted and diminish spontaneity. That wasn't the case. We added follow-up questions and comments after one of us responded. The conversation was brisk and focused on things we cared about. Little cognitive work was required for conversation management.

back to top  A Replication

For my 50th college reunion six weeks later in Portland, Oregon, five people who spent careers in tech formed a panel to discuss how tech had evolved, our roles, and what we recommend younger people think about. I introduced Andrew's structure. With five panelists, we doubled time allowances and mixed our prepared questions with less predictable audience participation. It went well. People go to college reunions more to hang out and socialize than to attend lectures and panels, but we drew a large crowd who stayed throughout.

back to top  Natural for Hybrid Panels

Efficient conversation management is critical for large panels. This approach also offers benefits for virtual or hybrid panels. Hybrid planning is by necessity online—which means there's no opportunity to get together for breakfast the day before—so coauthoring a structured document and holding a couple of preliminary meetings is a natural fit. More significantly, navigating conversation transitions is more challenging when panelists have less awareness of one another's body language. Hybrid panels may gravitate toward larger sizes, and cultural diversity could require bridging conversation styles.

This structure requires more preparation, but it was distributed over time, getting a better sense of other panelists' contributions reduced some of the effort, and the collaboration was enjoyable. It was worth it.

back to top  Author

Jonathan Grudin has been active in CHI and CSCW since each was founded. He has written about the history of HCI and challenges inherent in the field's trajectory, the focus of a course given at CHI 2022. He is a member of the CHI Academy and an ACM Fellow. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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