Event Camp 2010 . learnings from outside the fishbowl

I just participated in a few livestreamed breakout sessions from EventCamp 2010 New York. One of which was a session run by Samuel J Smith which used what’s called a fishbowl technique to promote discussion around his topic: Integrating Social Media Onsite at Events. I learned a great deal from watching this session remotely and give Samuel big kudos for taking a leap and doing something unconventional.

The Fishbowl Set Up

fishbowl technique at Event Camp 2010
The fishbowl in action at Event Camp 2010

Having sat through far too many sessions that use conventional classroom style room set ups, I found this more collaborative set up quite refreshing. For those of you who have not seen fishbowl dialogue in action, it is much like it sounds…a circle of 5-8 chairs are placed in the center of the room facing each other (this would be the fishbowl) and 2-8 (depending on the size of your audience) rows of chairs are set up to radiate out of the fishbowl.

People who volunteer or are selected to sit in the fishbowl have a dialogue or provide points of view on a selected topic. One of the fishbowl chairs is always left empty – this way if anyone from the audience wants to join the discussion they seat themselves at the empty chair (and someone else gets up to free up a chair). The idea is the moderation is kept to a minimum and the constantly changing fishbowl participants drive the dialogue.

I found this technique to be a great way to tap into the intelligence of the audience and build content for a subject around the needs, challenges and experiences of that crowd (at least the ones who participated in the fishbowl).

Learnings from outside of the fishbowl

Get the audience warmed up

We all know that audience interaction can be tough to achieve. There are natural extroverts who have no problem standing up and making a point, but there are others who get shivers of fear at the thought of even putting up their hand. Sitting in a fishbowl can be very intimidating, so it’s not for everyone. But I do think there’s an opportunity to warm up the audience before the fishbowl begins. Get people on their feet and interacting.

Set parameters upfront

To build off of the last point, there are some individuals who gravitate to the spotlight. Some of them can tend to go on and on and on and on and on and on about a point (It should be noted that this did not happen at EventCamp). Setting some upfront parameters may be helpful to ensure people stay on topic, don’t hog the mic and interact professionally.

A side note: My husband is one of those guys who is a best man or MC at every wedding we attend. Most of our friends are West Indian and let’s just say that the speeches portion of the reception can be…er…a bit long winded. He regularly warns wedding guests that if their speeches go on too long, he may come out to cut them short. His schtick? A pair of briefs (i.e. underwear). When someone drones on with the speech he pulls out the briefs and flashes them to the speaker and the audience. It gets the audience re-engaged and gets the speaker to wrap up. Case closed.

Choose a controversial subject

There was some great dialogue, but one of the most enjoyable parts of Samuel Smith’s session was when Clinton Bonner decided to take the ‘devil’s advocate’ position on a topic. It got participants fired up (in a good way) and created some great points on both sides of the argument.

Instead of picking an all encompassing subject, why not pick a controversial statement like: “why social media should never be used for events” . It gives people permission to pick sides and get passionate about their points of view.

Online engagement

A goal, whenever live streaming a session, is to involve the online audience as much as possible. The fishbowl made it very difficult to engage the online viewers since (stating the obvious here) we couldn’t physically sit in the empty seat. I do, however, think there’s an opportunity to allow online viewers to have a seat in the fishbowl by way of video stream. I’d love to get an a/v professional to weigh in on this (in the comments section) to see if you have any recommendation on how this could work.

Fishbowl introductions

As an online viewer, since there were so many people moving in and out of the fishbowl, it was a bit hard to keep up with who was speaking. I’d recommending asking anyone who speaks to introduce them self and their twitter handle.

I really enjoyed this session and plan on using the technique and some of my learnings from all of you in some of my upcoming seminars. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Sam!

What do you think?

Did you watch the fishbowl? What did you think? Can you see yourself incorporating this into any of your events?