I fell in love with Technical Issues in Tools Development roundtable at GDC in the late 2000s. It was the only community I could find about building tools and tool infrastructure.
When the fantastic John Walker departed I took the mantle of moderating. Soon after, GDC asked me to join the Advisory Board. This first year on the board I volunteered to provide feedback to the rest of the roundtables in the Programming track.
This post is the result of the thoughts I had attending roundtables (mainly in the Programming track) for the whole of GDC 2019 Main Conference.
Let’s start at the top…
What is a Roundtable?
A roundtable is a discussion whose topics are driven by the interests of the participants, and whose substance is relevant to the majority of the room.
Participants have ample opportunity to:
- Propose new topics
- Make comments on a topic
- Ask follow-up questions while a topic is being discussed
The Moderator is an expert in the subject, but does not address topics directly.
The Moderator’s expertise is mainly useful to:
- Clarify or reframe questions and topics into something the room can address
- Generalize overly specific remarks into something valuable to the room
- Specifically call upon known participants when necessary
That last bullet is a bit tricky. Most of the roundtables I moderate do tend to have a panel of experts that attend repeatedly. It can be useful to push these experts to chime in on topics when you know they can speak about them.
Moderating vs. Participating
Participants are there to talk to other participants or the room as a whole. Participants aren’t there to talk to The Moderator.
Roundtables shouldn’t be like Q & A sessions with a lecturer. You may have people raising hands to speak, but they aren’t really wanting to speak to The Moderator. They are raising their hands to address the room. The Moderator needs to behave in a way that maximizes the room thinking they are the ones being addressed, collectively, by whomever happens to be speaking.
Its really important that The Moderator take their ego out of the discussion as much as possible. They are a facilitator by default, and not a participant. Seamlessly jumping back and forth between both roles can expose bias toward The Moderator’s viewpoint. Participants could also become frustrated if they feel that The Moderator got more opportunities to express their opinion than they did.
Every roundtable discussion is a tiny community, and it should be an equitable one, where participants feel they are treated fairly.
The Moderator can become a participant at several points in the discussion, but this change should be evident to the participants.
I like to raise my own hand, and point at myself with the other hand to send a clear message to the room that I am switching from being The Moderator to being a participant. This is usually a mildly entertaining moment that helps keep your audience engaged; an opportunity to put some humor into the room (which helps people relax). Cues like this are worth doing because the participants will appreciate the equitable treatment of time between all participants.
Promoting The Good
The Moderator keeps the discussion quickly flowing directly to participants that want to speak.
The most important factor for keeping a discussion lively is lowering the latency between speakers. The Moderator should be looking to lower the time interval between someone finishing their point, and the next person beginning to speak. The lower the time interval the higher velocity the overall discussion will have. The higher velocity the more takeaways participants will get. Higher velocity means higher engagement, too.
To accomplish this The Moderator is constantly doing many things at once:
- Listening to the active speaker and verifying relevance, speed, and volume
- Thinking about when and who will speak next on the current point
- Thinking about what the next topic is and when to switch to it
Its vital for The Moderator to be thinking about what the next moderating event will be. These events are moving to the next speaker, changing topics, signaling the current speaker to wrap up, etc… The Moderator should be looking to overlap acquisition of the next participant to speak with the current speaker. This is so that no time is wasted when the active speaker changes. Dead air between speakers is a significant contributor to distraction and boredom.
The Moderator should physically focus on the non-speaking participants more than the current speaker.
In addition to the above, The Moderator is also constantly doing these things:
- Looking around the room for a person signaling that they want to speak
- Looking around the room for people that can’t hear or are distracted
- Moving around the room, looking for new sight lines, and making eye contact
Its important that The Moderator be mostly not looking at who is speaking at any given moment. Upon breaking gaze, the speaker will almost always switch to addressing the most relevant participant in the room. This is encouraged because the current speaker should be addressing other participants or the room as a whole, and not talking specifically to The Moderator.
Its important to move around the room during the discussion. This helps with ensuring no voice is omitted because of difficult sight lines, and it ensures that you know for sure that speakers can be heard on the opposite side of the room. You sometimes cue distracted participants to pay attention by making eye contact while walking amongst the participants.
Mitigating The Bad
Prevent a single point of view from dominating the conversation.
Most things worth discussing have multiple approaches/viewpoints, and if folks that represent multiple viewpoints are in the room they should have the opportunity to have a voice. More concretely: some people will want to address many different topics multiple times over. At some point these people should be forced to yield to others in the room to keep the conversation fresh.
The longer the discussion commences, The Moderator should bias toward choosing new/seldom speakers to chime in on topics. In the long run this reinforces that people should think carefully about which topics they have enough value to warrant speaking on.
Fight distraction and daydreaming by reminding the participants about the current topic.
People will check their phone, use their laptop, etc… and lose track of the current topic. Once they are paying attention again The Moderator should be making shout outs to what the current topic is so they can re-engage.
Its also useful to do this if a particular topic isn’t getting responses as well: reiterate/generalize the current topic until its clear there is something to say about it. There is always something to say about every topic, and reminding the audience that as a whole its failing to accomplish that invariably will get people to chime in.
Use microphone/public-address systems sparingly.
Running mics around the room introduce some difficult challenges, they:
- Increase latency between speakers (which contribute to dead air between topics and speakers)
- Contribute to people mumbling more (asking people to speak up and project their voice helps this)
- Depending on the room and speaker placement it can add additional reverb to someone’s voice (more audio sources and bounces)
So while mics make people louder that doesn’t always net out in making people easier to actually understand, and it makes moderating effectively a bit harder.
Technical Issues in Tools Development Format
Provided mostly for reference, here are the de-personalized notes I use to describe the format at the beginning of each session.
- Remind people to fill out session review forms
- Turn cell phones on vibrate
- Introduce yourself and note public profiles (twitter, facebook, etc)
- List work history, why you deserve to moderate the discussion
- Note any online community resources people may want to join
- I will call around the room for topics write them on the whiteboard
- We will work our way through them over the course of the session
- We might won’t make it through each topic, sorry if we don’t get to yours
- We will bias topics for this particular session towards X
- I will note relevant topics on the top, and the less relevant on the bottom
- Time permitting we can discuss less relevant or even new topics, so keep thinking
- I may cut off speakers that are taking a lot of time, sorry about that
- Please raise your hand and make eye contact with me if you want to speak
- Keep your hand up as I will scan the room while speakers are talking
- I will nod in acknowledgement that you want to speak, and may come back to you
- The first time you speak please state your name and studio/company
- I may gesture you to speak up by flailing my arms
Issue the call for topics.
Begin discussing the first topic.