What is it?

Provocations is an event format in which punchy short talks are interspersed with ethically provocative statements to inspire discussion. Attendees must take a snap stance in response to the provocations then share their decisions, with input and exchange from the experts and other attendees.

Best for:

Topics with strong human interest & social relevance; controversial issues.


  • Allows experts to challenge the attendees and highlight difficult ethical problems
  • Can explore multiple angles of a complex, topical issue
  • Easy to extend the discussion on social media using the provocation questions, or if recorded, as a teaching/engagement tool
  • Everyone has the opportunity to contribute their thoughts and knowledge in some way


  • With larger attendee groups, the quality of discussion at each table is harder to control and support
  • Does not work as well for technical topics, eg. particle physics

You will need:

  • 1-4 guest contributors, briefed in the format and ready to deliver a provocation
  • A venue with a cafe-style layout in which the attendees are grouped in 4-6 person tables and event staff who will facilitate this seating arrangement
  • A way for attendees to answer a yes/no question (could be electronic and centralised, or simple and table-based like coloured stones, tokens or die)

How it runs (100 minute version)*:

(10 mins) Facilitator introduces the event, format, expectations for participation, and topic

(10 mins) First guest gives ~8 minute talk, finishing with their provocation statement. Attendees have 30 seconds to think individually and make a decision yes/no.

(15 mins) Attendees discuss the question, their answers, any potentially other talking points suggested by the guest and displayed on a screen. The guests and facilitator circulate among tables, noting any key points, questions or ideas raised.

(25 mins) Second speaker, provocation and discussion.

(25 mins) Third speaker, provocation and discussion.

(15 mins) Event wrap: Facilitator brings all three questions back up and invites each guest to briefly share their answers and a handful of key points they’ve encountered in their discussions on the night. Attendees are invited to consider if their answers have changed (if using an electronic vote capture, can run votes again to see if this has taken place).

*Note that a single Provocation could last as little as 20 minutes as is a great ‘modular’ bit to intersperse in an otherwise conventional lecture, panel, or to frame a workshop. Be creative!

 Watch out for:

Provocations that are too closed or simple. A good provocation is one that’s hard to answer within a few seconds – but that’s what attendees must do. If you can think of lots of ways attendees might ‘take issue’ with the question – challenge its phrasing, unpick assumptions in it – that is great. You do not want everyone at a table to agree. Pilot your provocations with colleagues – if it can spark disagreement and dialogue at your workplace’s lunch table, you’re onto something!

  • “Panel discussions should be banned at academic conferences to foster innovation in how we meet and share information.”
  • “Government security services should have easy access to personal data held by private companies.”
  • “I would act as Snowden did and leak confidential documents to journalists.”
  • “Technological innovation is causing more new problems in our world than it is solving old ones.”
  • “University education should be free for high achieving students.”
  • “Crewed space flight is a waste of money and should be discontinued.”
  • “Scientists should be rewarded with financial bonuses if their research translates into real-world public good.”