8 July 2012

Tips for Moderating Panels at Conventions

Because Readercon is coming up soon, my friend Claire asked for advice on moderating panels at conventions. It turns out I've done enough research and had enough experience that I actually had a lot to say on the subject. Claire asked if I'd post my notes publicly, so here they are:

1) Remember first and foremost that your job on any panel is to keep the audience entertained and engaged. If things go off topic, but people are interested in that tangent, it's okay to follow the tangent for a bit. If things are going exactly according to plan, but people seem unengaged, it's time to change things up somehow. Never stay for too too long on one subject (or one tiny aspect of a larger subject, anyway).

2) People have most likely come to this panel for one of two reasons. The first is that they know and like one or more of the panelists, and would like to hear them speak. The second is that they like the look of the panel description as it appears in the program. Knowing these two things, consider it your task to make sure that all the panelists get chances to speak more than a tiny amount, and to address the subject matter described in the panel in at least three different ways--there is nothing quite so disappointing as arriving at a panel where the description sounds very exciting, only to have the moderator undercut it ("I know the description says this is about contemporary fantasy fairy tale retellings, but everyone's totally sick of those. Let's focus on aliens in space opera fairy tales instead.").

3) To make things go smoothly, it helps if you have done some prep-work. If you've been provided a list of e-mail addresses for your fellow panelists, you might want to send a message in advance with a brief explanation of your game plan. Something along the lines of:

"I'm going to introduce the panel by name and tell the audience that we will have a discussion for x minutes before we open up to audience questions for the last y minutes of the panel. Then I'll read the official description and ask each of you to introduce yourselves in a brief way. I will spend the remainder of the first x minutes asking you all some questions, and making sure everyone has a chance to speak. If there's anything you particularly hope to talk about in this discussion, please let me know."

Of course, you would also want to add salutations and pleasantries. You might also end the message by asking if that plan sounds all right, and welcoming their suggestions for changes to the overall plan. In practice, I have never had anyone ask me to change my plan, but people seem to like the idea that they do have input. I have sometimes gotten good suggestions for things to talk about, too.

If you have not been provided a list a of e-mails you can either skip this step, or you can try asking the event organizers for contact info if you feel like doing that.

4) On the day of the panel, be very clear from the start that you'll be taking questions at whichever time you intend to take them, and that you are the leader of the discussion. People will accept your authority if you lay it out up front. If you haven't explicitly stated it, and people start to overtake the conversation (panelists or audience members), it can be very difficult to wrestle the conversation into a meaningful shape. At 5 minutes before the panel is supposed to end, stop taking questions, tell everyone it's time to wrap up, and ask your panelists for any final remarks. End the panel on time (several minutes before the next panel is scheduled to begin) so that the next group can come in and get started promptly. This all sounds very authoritarian, but it you say it with clarity and good-naturedness, most likely no one will mind.

5) Have some specific questions in mind (and bonus points if you have one question specifically related to each panelist's work), but don't think of them as a list to get through. Use them as a guide to start the conversation, and then to bring it back on track if it starts to stall or wander too far. Be open and flexible about following the natural conversational path as long as that path is interesting and the audience is engaged. If you believe that every panelist has something interesting to say, and that your job is to help them have a chance to say it, you'll usually be right, and everyone will be pleased with the end result.

6) If one person is dominating the conversation, it's okay to stop them, even mid-sentence. Just make it seem like a natural segue, and bring the conversation specifically to a panelist who hasn't spoken as much. ("You've brought up an interesting point, Jane. Bob, since you also write science fantasy, I'm wondering what you think about Jane's observation. Do you agree that all fairy tales should feature aliens from now on?").

7) Have fun. If you have fun, chances are everyone else will too.

Bonus tip: If you've got microphones available, use them. Even if you don't think you need them, other people might benefit from the amplification. Some audience members might feel unable or unwilling to complain when they can't hear you, so it's better to err on the louder and clearer side.

P.S. If you're coming to Readercon, I hope to see you there! I'll be reading in the Mythic Poetry group reading at 11am on Friday, and then leading the Codex Writers group reading at noon on Friday. The Outer Alliance is also having a meetup Friday at 9pm in the lobby. Do say hello!