How I’d Moderate a Discussion Session at a Conference

A little over a week ago I went to Science Online 2013, a yearly conference for people interested in communicating science, especially online. (Yes, I get the irony in having a conference about online science that took place face-to-face. If it makes you feel any better, it was also filled with printed books.) It’s the first unconference I’d been to. Attendees put the agenda together on a wiki ahead of time, and most of the sessions I went to involved moderators leading a discussion instead of panelists talking amongst themselves. The discussion sessions reminded me of a cross between a fan panel at a science fiction convention and a discussion class at school.

Stephen Granade talking at Scio13
I didn’t moderate, but I did talk at Scio13.
One of the side-effects of attending those sessions was that each one spawned two or three ideas for related sessions, which I’ve put on the wiki for Scio14. That means that I may end up moderating a session. It’s been years since I taught a discussion class, and most of my science panels at science fiction conventions are more lecture than group discussion. I spent a fair amount of Scio13 taking notes on how I’d moderate a session based on the great work the moderators were doing. I ended up with ten guidelines.

Plan with my co-moderators ahead of time. The best discussion sessions had moderators who were comfortable with each other and had worked out ahead of time how they were going to approach the session.

Set a session goal and communicate it. What’s the purpose of the session? Is it a conversation among people working in a field, like the session on being a freelancer? Is it to talk about what techniques do and don’t work for communicating science, like the science deficit model session? Is it to let people vent their frustration before working towards something constructive, like the Chemophobia panel? There can be multiple purposes, and the session goal can change based on audience feedback. In some cases the moderators explicitly developed the session’s goal with the audience, which was great! It helped that those moderators then summarized what we’d collectively decided the session was going to be about.

Have a structure, but be prepared to abandon it. The first Scio13 panel I went to was DeLene Beeland’s and David Dobbs’s on narrative. They had three major topics that they used to give the session a beginning, middle, and end. In a session on chemophobia, Dr. Rubidium and Carmen Drahl made sure that the last 15 minutes were spent on constructive ways to deal with people’s fear of chemicals. But a structure isn’t a straight-jacket. It’s not a Play-Doh Fun Factory for me to shove conversation through to make it a certain shape. It’s meant to guide and enrich the conversation.

Go for a round room setup. Most of the session rooms were set up like a traditional classroom, which meant I spent a lot of time craning my neck and turning around to see someone behind me who was talking. One of the session rooms had the chairs in a circle, and I found that a lot more conducive to conversation. It can’t have been easy for the moderators, and I’m sure such an arrangement would make me more uncomfortable than a traditional room layout, but the benefit for conversation would be worth it to me.

Talk some at the beginning, and then shut up. If it’s a true discussion session, then my job as a moderator is to keep the conversation going and help direct it, not hold forth at length. In the session on talking about what we don’t know, Maggie Koerth-Baker and Maryn McKenna talked for a bit about what they wanted from the session and then let the audience do most of the talking.

Summarize conversation points on a white board or poster board. Some sessions were lucky enough to have Perrin Ireland drawing the major discussion points. In the Outreach in Unusual Places session, Bug Girl and Emily Finke jotted down suggested outreach allies and places to do science outreach on a whiteboard. Doing so helped me keep track of the conversation and is something I’d want to have in all sessions.

Have questions prepared ahead of time. A lot of the sessions I was in started slowly until enough conversation had happened that people were fully engaged and had Definite Opinions to share. Having an open-ended question or two can help jump-start the conversation. And they have to be open-ended. Yes/no questions or ones with a right answer don’t spark an on-going dialog as well as open-ended questions do.

When someone asks the group a question, seek follow-up questions. Discussion groups are many conversations that have to happen linearly, since only one person can talk at a time. That means that comments queue up as more and more people raise their hand to talk. It’s easy to ask a question and then have it go unanswered as the next three people comment on what was talked about five minutes before your question. Some moderators made it a point to say, “Does anyone have a response to so-and-so’s question?”, which helped get those questions answered.

Have a volunteer monitoring the session’s Twitter stream. Space at Scio13 was limited, and a lot of the people interested in the conversation weren’t there. Every Scio13 session had its own hashtag, which meant that non-attendees could comment on the session based on a session livestream or the flood of tweets coming out of the session. Some sessions had a person in the room monitoring the hashtag and relaying incisive comments or questions to the attendees, which added to the conversation.

Watch for people who are working through thoughts, especially dissenting ones. When I taught, I learned to look for people who were disagreeing with what I was saying. You get crossed arms, mutters, head shakes, and the like. In a discussion session, asking dissenters if they’d like to comment can keep the session from being just a group of people who all agree with each other.

Call on people I don’t know. This was a hard teaching lesson for me. I knew who my most engaged students were and felt most comfortable calling on them. Almost half of the Scio13 attendees were there for the first time, including me, which meant that there were a lot of new faces in the crowd. Now that I’ve been for a year, if I go to Scio14 and moderate, I know I’d fall back into old patterns of calling on people I knew and would have to fight that instinct.

Know who in my audience you can go to for a good comment or summary of what’s being discussed. When I’ve run discussion classes, I’ve had to strike a balance between including as many voices as possible and keeping the conversation productive. Having people in the audience whom you know can help steer the conversation can be a life-saver. I’ve gone so far as to seed talking points or questions with attendees before.

I’m hopeful that these guidelines would make for a good discussion session, and I’d love to hear from previous moderators who tried any of these guidelines about how well they worked.