Keys to a good panel event – insights from 2016 World Science Festival Brisbane

From Tanya Ha, Science in Public

WSFIn March 2016, an estimated 120,000 people descended upon free and ticketed events and street science shows in Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct—all for the fun, fascination and food-for-thought offered by science.

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane, presented by Queensland Museum, boasted a line-up of over 120 speakers from nine countries, including international stars—including MASH actor Alan Alda, oceanographer and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle, and physicist and World Science Festival co-founder Brian Greene.

Brian even had a newly discovered spider named after him.

Drawing on my environmentalist and science journalism background, I hosted two events: Can we save our precious reefs in time? and Robots: the new eco warriors.

'Can we save our precious reefs in time?' panel event (photo courtesy of World Science Festival Brisbane)

‘Can we save our precious reefs in time?’ panel event (photo courtesy of World Science Festival Brisbane)

Here are some of the things I learnt:

A good panel event starts with a good line up

Scientific topics are often rich and complex. A panel event gives an event producer the opportunity to bring multiple voices and perspectives to the table. With ‘Can we save our precious reefs in time?’ the panel included people who could confidently talk about the science, government policy and reef management. There was also expertise in climate change and reefs, and ‘assisted evolution’ for resilient corals. And world-renowned marine biology legend Sylvia Earle brought and international perspective and her undeniable charisma to the stage.

Together they told the story of the inherent beauty and practical value of reef ecosystems, the challenges facing world’s reefs, the short timeframe we have to act and a discussion of practical solutions.

Make sure the panel, and especially the moderator, are well briefed

Some science panel speakers have a lot of experience; others may be new and very nervous. Panel events work better with relaxed, comfortable speakers who know what to expect and are confident the event will be well run. Start with a run sheet and perhaps a loose overview of that questions and topics will be covered, and who will be called on to speak about specific topics.

But don’t over-prepare. An event where every question is pre-written will sound too scripted and less conversational.

Make sure the speakers know who their fellow panellists will be. Send through some background information, but not too much. They’re busy people, who are unlikely to have time to read through huge amounts of information.

A good moderator, host or MC is particularly important, especially if you have strong personalities or occasionally long-winded speakers on the panel. One that is interested in the topic and well versed in the expertise of the panellists can guide the discussion, bring in panellists where their particular expertise can add to the conversation, and/or make sure the quieter panellists are included and that no one voice dominates.

An event with a strong story can lead to media stories

Events with a topic that’s in the news and/or with high calibre speakers can even lead to media stories. The ‘Can we save our precious reefs in time?’ event included Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, whose comments on Australia’s efforts to address reef challenges and the suggestion of spending submarine money on saving the reef made it into a headline and a few news stories.

Coverage of the event (links below) meant that its messages reached an audience of thousands, beyond the hundreds who attended the live event:

Capture the audio +/- video

If you have microphones and a sound desk controlling the audio on the day, chances are you can record that audio and turn it into a podcast or radio show at a later date. For example, some of the World Science Festival Brisbane events were broadcast on ABC’s Radio National. Just make sure you have clearance to do so from the panellists first.

Capture the imagination

More broadly, initiatives like World Science Festival have great potential to bring science to the people in fun and engaging ways. I particularly liked the CSIRO Infinity Swing, using renewable energy harvested from people swinging on specially made swings to power up lights.

And finally, some science themed food really is the icing on the cake!

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