I went to two events yesterday, both very well run and both to some extent diminished by the lack of interaction between those presenting and those in the audience – listening.
The reason- Slido – an app that can be downloaded on your phone and used to ask questions and participate in polls. Used inclusively, Slido can bring people not in the room – for instance participating remotely – into the room. For some shy people, it is a way to get questions asked anonymously, but for those people who have struggled to get physically to a venue and who are now part of a live experience it is a passion killer.
Slido can and sometimes is, used as an alternative to people asking questions in the hall. In neither event yesterday did I see a single hand go up either in the body of the presentation of in the question time. Instead of scanning the audience for eager participants , chairs of sessions had their eyes down on ipads working out which of the Slido questions they wanted answered. This presumably meant that the more difficult questions could be screened out and ensured that questions were decontextualized by being anonymised. It also meant there was no right of reply.
Slido may create a low-risk way of running an event but it diminishes the point of running an event live at all. Can you imagine question time without the audience?
I sometimes hear the chairs of conference sessions saying that they are nothing but introducers for the presentations. If chairs go into presentations with this attitude , then Slido is for them. But a number of the sessions I went to yesterday had chairs that did get beyond topping and tailing and become part of their sessions. People say that like referees, chairs do best when not noticed, but this is only the case when the presenters of panellists are putting on a performance that stands on its own. Frankly it is rare that we get to this stage.
Most presentations are in need of probing and it is only when Chairs ask the question we dare not ask ourselves that audiences are released to push back on matters they do not understand or don’t agree with. Chairs are perforce disruptive, there has to be some creative tension or we might as well watch you tube.
Audiences are supposed to be included in events and often this is through polls that “draw us in” to the conversation. I like polls, which Slido manages, but polls are limited to those who can master the technology and they are anonymous, they are not a substitute for genuine audience participation which comes through the cut and thrust of questioning.
And polls can be diddled- one regular correspondent with this blog admits to multiple voting using all browsers installed on his phone, I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to trace such practice!
It is most important that audiences are not disempowered but feel free to ask questions and I think this should usually include the right to interrupt a presentation where something is clearly not right.
At an event last night where I had been asked not to tweet, I left my phone in the cloakroom and found myself without Slido and unable to raise my hand. For a large part of the panel debate I simply didn’t understand what was going on because I felt I had no way of asking a question, it takes a lot to shut me up – Slido did!
Presenters and panellists
If panellists and presenters are not prepared to take live questions then I question why they are “live”. I am sure that those on stage feel reassured if they know that all questions come through the chair electronically and that the chair will filter out those that are deemed inappropriate. But this goes against all my instincts about thought diversity. If we are to listen to edited questions we are to be subjected to a sort of group-think that is exclusive to the freedom of expression , thought and of debate that makes the live event important.
We need to ask more of those who debate (unless they are too vulnerable to take questions). I accept that some people need to be heard and protected but that does not include 99% of the people I listen to and listened to yesterday. Yet I can’t remember one panellist or presenter taking a direct question from the audience. I am quite sure that those panellists worth their salt will agree with me that the essence of live debate is the direct challenge.
Slido be damned
I hope that people who organise conferences and events (especially Monday’s DWP launch of its package of DC reforms) will stop before introducing Slido into their conferences.
If an event is live, preference has to be given to the live audience, both to reward people turning up and to make the event more live to those who watch through their screens.
I would ban Slido for questions at live events and make sure the audience know that they are not just able but encouraged to stick up their hands and participate.
There is a strong argument for a “phones off” policy while people are presenting. Watching down a row the LCDs of phones and the fingers of the audience accessing God knows what, is not conducive to engagement with what we have travelled to be at!
We cannot let public debate be emasculated by our phones. People must have preference over technology or we might as well live our lives on Teams and Zoom.