Off topic

How many of you clicked through when you saw the post title “Off topic”? The promise of something different, something unscheduled, intrigues.

I was at a literary conference this past weekend with many outstanding panels. In several of these panels, the moderator had to rein in a panelist, or members of the audience, who’d gone off topic. In some cases, it wasn’t a matter of someone wandering off topic — it was an energetic stampede into a whole other discussion.

The cry of “That’s a different panel” resulted in the “off” topic being posted on a white board. On the last day of the conference, conference participants chose one of those topics and that became the topic for the scheduled after-lunch panel.

Not surprisingly, the Different Panel was the best panel of the conference — a discussion of some major issues that had emerged, again and again, during earlier panels.

(Those of you who go to “un-conferences” at which most of the programming is done spontaneously can consider yourselves lucky. But keep in mind, un-conferences are still the exception to rule.)

One of the high points of the Different Panel was the panelist inversion. Mid-way through the panel, a member of the audience stood up and set forth a sweeping and powerful paradigm for understanding the topic. The room erupted with cheers. The moderator jumped to her feet yelling “Stop! Stop!” She then brought the speaker up to the stage, handed over moderator authority to her, dismissed the panel, and (in less than a minute) the outgoing and incoming moderators brought up a whole new panel chosen from people in the audience who had been involved in the burgeoning discussion.

The discussion proceeded with the new panelists, going from “very good” to “truly great.”

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