Fishbowl discussion panels are a great alternative to traditional conference speaker panels. The key word is discussion – a discussion that happens strictly between the fishbowl panelists. There are six chairs set up in a slight arc, and one chair is always empty, so there are a total of five panelists at any given time. Discussion only occurs amongst the panelists. If there is an audience member that would like to contribute to the conversation, they need only get up and sit down in the empty chair. At that point somebody already on the panel must get up and sit down in the audience.
There are a two important points to discuss with both the audience and the panelists:
- If you sit down to be part of the panel you cannot simply state your point and return to your seat in the audience. You must wait until someone takes the empty seat – and be quick enough if there is somebody else looking to get into the audience!
- This is meant to be a discussion and long diatribes are discouraged. Don’t be afraid to light-heartedly scold someone for going on too long.
Seeding the panel questions
When running a fishbowl at the end of a day of presentations, it can help to make sure there are flip charts or a white board in each presentation room. Attendees must be encouraged throughout the day to add their questions. These questions are collected and projected to the audience and panelists (if the projection can also be seen by the panelists it can help keep them on point). When a question comes up that is not clear, you can ask the person who wrote it to give context. The key here is to make sure they are brief.
If collecting the questions beforehand is not possible, you can always take questions from the floor. The downside is that when people write down their questions it forces them to be concise. Questions from the floor can be much more open-ended because people tend to describe the question instead of asking it.
Keeping the questions moving
The discussion for each question is initially limited to a maximum of five minutes. After five minutes the audience votes whether there are five more minutes of discussion, or whether to move on. This keeps the control of discussion in the hands of the audience as a group, and doesn’t allow one topic or person to dominate. We hand out auction paddles for voting that are red on one side (move on) and green on the other (five more minutes). Prior to the auction paddles we used open palm (move on) and closed fist (five more minutes). This wasn’t as easy to judge sometimes – the big swaths of color really help.
A very special thanks goes to David Hussman for originally suggesting this technique for our first AgilePalooza in Minneapolis, and also for the idea of having a red card/green card for voting.