Can the ‘fishbowl format’ revitalise panel discussions?

people on a panel

It’s rare for business events not to include panel discussions of some description, but could a concept known as the ‘fishbowl’ format offer a new level of interaction for participants by providing a more engaging setting?

A described by Quartz at Work, the fishbowl format involves guest speakers answering directed questions while sitting in a circle of chairs, with the audience sitting in circles around them. An ‘open’ fishbowl format sees a chair left empty, allowing audience members to rotate through.

Quartz reports a closed fishbowl format was employed by Wayfinding founder Larissa Conte and organisational coach and Developmental Designs founder Gabriel Wilson in their discussion at the recent [email protected] conference in Brooklyn. Speakers observed a “mutual invitation” format, passing on or answering a question within a given time limit.

Under this format, once their time is finished, speakers then hand the microphone or spotlight on to their choice of panel member.

Quartz explains this method created an environment in which panel members were obliged to listen to each other instead of focusing on their turn to speak, while members who passed on questions were able to think about it and return to the question or explain why they passed.

The fishbowl format does involves audience members facing panel members’ backs, however, you may not need to be sitting face-to-face to feel connected.

There are many ways to discern feeling, with a recent Yale School of Management study highlighting tone of voice, rather than facial expressions, as potentially being the primary conveyance of speaker emotions.

Conte and Wilson both pointed out that, reading body language, we don’t need to see someone’s face to pick up on their emotional state, with the fishbowl format effective when emotional connection is more central to progress, as opposed to a debate about what is right or wrong.

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