Moderating Con Panels — an Introduction

One of the things I did at Worldcon/Aussiecon on the weekend was moderate a panel. For those unfamiliar with such things, a con panel (usually) consists of from two to four people with something to say on a topic, and a moderator. Formats vary, but usually each panelist talks for a few minutes on the topic, and then questions ensue. Often the panelists start bouncing thoughts and ideas off each other, which is my favorite bit. Sometimes you hear something quite profound that stays with you for months and years.

Most panels have a moderator, whose job is to make sure the conversation keeps flowing smoothly. This may sound like you just sit there and call on members of the audience when they raise their hands. But no! There's a lot that goes into making a panel run invisibly well. I'd like to set forth for you the things I did for mine (and I got a lot of good feedback from panelists and audience members alike, so I'm pretty sure I got it pretty much right). I was rather surprised, actually, that it seemed to come so readily, but it occurred to me but a moment ago that it's really very, very like running a press conference (which is something I've done a lot of). So if you've done that sort of work yourself, this will seem very familiar, perhaps even simplistic. But if you haven't, I hope this is helpful for the next time you are asked to moderate a panel (or run a press conference).

  • Make friends with your coordinator: the person who acts as a liaison between you and the conference venue and organizing committee. That person is noble, brave, selfless, and true, and you are privileged to know them. Ask them your questions; don't guess. They want things to go well, and they will find you answers that work. Make sure you keep them in the loop of any communications with your panelists (see below).

  • Know your panelists' work, at least a little. If you can't afford to buy their stuff, borrow it and read something of theirs. Read their web sites, their Wikipedia bios (with a grain of salt), reviews of their work. If they're famous enough to be on a panel, they're famous enough for there to be something online about them.

  • Have a very clear idea of what your panel will be about. If the coordinator is a little vague, that means you have some latitude. But it does NOT mean YOU can be vague. Your panelists are counting on you to help them succeed. Part of that is giving them a structure they can use to guide their own decisions about what they're going to say. That's not to say you can be a dictator about it. But panelists are very busy people, and mostly they're going to really appreciate your narrowing the focus a little. For example, my panel was on poetic and lyric language as part of YA fantasy. Uh-huh. But I started out by developing four or five questions ("What is it that distinguishes poetic language from prosaic?" "What are the reasons you might choose to add poetic language at a particular point in your story?" — that sort of thing) that gave a way to define and talk about the topic. Moreover, it gives you something to throw into the mix if the audience is small or shy and there aren't enough questions from them to keep the energy going.

  • Get your coordinator to put you in touch with your panelists BEFORE, WELL BEFORE, you get to the con. Like, weeks. Not hours. Introduce yourself (cc your coordinator, too). Mention your questions: "I was thinking that during the panel it might be interesting to focus on a few things like these...." Also, it's helpful for you to suggest a format for the panel. "Is everyone all right for talking for between five and 10 minutes, and then we'll open it up for questions?" Ask them three very important things:

    • How do they want their bio to read?

    • What technology might they need? (One of my panelists had a book trailer she wanted to play, so I needed to make sure there was a computer/projector setup and either Internet or a port for a USB.)

    • Most important of all, what books or other works do they want you to mention/promote as part of their introduction? That's one of the main reasons they're there. Help them out. Ask them before they have to ask you. This shows you are working for their success.

The day approaches
Because you've done so much good, hard work in the previous stage, this is nowhere near as hectic as it could have been. You just need to do a few things:
  • Check that you have (or have written) everyone's bios. Two paragraphs is plenty, and one is usually enough. If you've written it yourself, or even just cobbled it together from several sources, MAKE SURE YOU RUN IT BY THE RELEVANT PANELIST.

  • Check with your coordinator that all the technology your panelists wanted is available and ready to go. (If not, you may need to break it to the panelist that they have to go a little more austere.)

  • Print out the bios and your list of questions. I am not even joking: even if you have the most reliable computer in the world, it will fail during the con. Will it kill you to print out a couple of sheets of paper? Recycle them later.

  • Reaffirm for yourself the timings you are aiming for: maybe three minutes for intros, 20 minutes to a half hour for panelists' shpiels, questions for the remaining time. Your coordinator will have told you when you need to wrap things up and be out of the room; stick to that slavishly. It's only professional.

  • See if you can get a friend to commit themselves to attending the panel: both for moral support and because they can be very helpful indeed (see below).

At the con venue
NOT at the last minute, make sure you get a thorough briefing on the technology. And that means you, yourself, with your own hands, doing a test run with whatever your panelists asked you to play/show/run.

At the session
  • Be there the instant the previous session starts to file out. Smile and be nice to anyone still on the dais, but you have work to do. Get the technology set up and test it (including microphones). Choose a seat for yourself (the one nearest the technology is best), and put your printouts there (did you remember to bring them?)

  • Introduce yourself to your panelists in person as they get settled, and ask them if they need anything or have any questions. YOU ARE HERE TO SERVE THEM. THEY ARE THE CENTER OF YOUR UNIVERSE, AND MAKING THEM LOOK FABULOUS, WITTY, PREPARED, AND COMPETENT IS YOUR HIGHEST JOY.

  • Right smack bang on time, speak gently and cheerfully into the microphone: "Hi, everyone. Let's get started. I'm [insert your name here], and this is the panel on [insert panel topic here]. I'd like to start out by introducing our panelists." Do NOT feel you have to introduce yourself to any other extent than giving your name, unless you, too, are a honking great expert on this topic. I wasn't, particularly, on mine, so I didn't. The audience wasn't there to hear me, after all.

  • As each panelist speaks, look at them, preferably with an expression of genial interest and approval. The audience may not think they're paying attention to you, but believe me, they are. If you are shuffling papers, staring dully into space, or looking annoyed or irritable, that will erode your panelists' credibility, and that's just not nice. However, if you model enthusiasm and interest, the audience will follow you, and the speakers will warm to them and speak more vibrantly. Which will increase audience enthusiasm and interest, and up and up. This is a good thing.

  • Your friend in the audience can tell you by their wonderfully expressive frowns and squints whether the microphones are close enough to each panelist's face; if not, unobtrusively adjust them or murmur to the panelist in question to move the mic closer.

  • When each panelist is done, say thanks and move on to the next one. This is very simple: "Thanks, X. Y?"

  • Ah, question time. I strongly recommend you lead off with the first question (one of your prepared ones is perfect, because the panelists have all seen these questions from you before and have thought about them, so they'll have at least a basic idea of what they want to say. This makes them look good). Don't be shy about it: you're the moderator. You are the bringer of order and peace. "Thanks, [last panelist]. I'd like to open it up for questions, and I'd like to ask the first one. [Insert question here.]" See? Easy. After that, it's your job to make sure people get called on in approximately the order they raised their hands. It's a nice gesture to make eye contact with the ones you haven't picked yet and subtly let them know (with a nod or a "wait a minute" raised finger) that you have seen them, you will give them a go, and you think they're terrific for being here and asking a question. Nobody likes to be ignored, and just a small thing like this can make a big difference to their memories of the panel. If there is an awkward silence in the proceedings, fill it with one of your questions, or, even better, have your plant in the audience ask one (one of yours, or one that occurs to them on the spot, either is fine).

    A note about the non-question question. I swear, every con badge should come with a device that detects when there is absolutely no question mark anywhere inside someone's head when they raise their hand, and it should zap them instantly into unconsciousness. There will, I repeat, will, be at least one person there who has no intention of asking anything, but is just dying to add, correct, amplify, do whatever they need to do to feel like they're part of the show. These people must be treated with courtesy and respect. But so must everyone else in the room, and after a few seconds of rambling (NOTE! NOT a few minutes! Be bold and resolute!), you are obligated to interrupt them (that's why you have a microphone and they don't). "Tell you what," you can say brightly, "I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to ask questions; would you mind saving that until after?" Usually they will acquiesce, but repeat as necessary.

  • When time's up, time's up. Cut things off, thank the audience for being there, thank each panelist individually, lead the applause. As the audience leaves, thank each panelist again yourself, making sure you let them know you really enjoyed their participation. Gather your papers, return any technology to its original state, and you're done. Mostly (see below).

As soon as you get home, email the panelists and your coordinator and thank them all again.

Moderating con panels is fun, and important, work. Doing it well is not just a matter of professional pride (although it's that, too). It's also a way to show your colleagues and your potential readers that you care about THEM. And that can only be a good thing. A world in which we work for each other's success is a good world.


At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Black and Blue Man said...

Great post!

Being a fellow AussieCon4 attendee myself, I attended some panels that went well but others that left one or more things to be desired. Starting and ending on time were a big problem, and so were technological stuff-ups (which I found rather worrying for a science-fiction convention, although perhaps that was the point - to make us more inspired to get to the 'world of tomorrow' faster?)

I don't see myself presenting any panels in the near future, but a lot of the advice you gave can be applied to many other areas. For example, print-outs of your notes next to your PC are always a good idea - as we know from both real life and SF, machines can and will fail.

A world in which we work for each other's success is a good world.
Indeed! :)

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Houston Dunleavy said...

You did a great job on your panel. It's clear that what you talk bout here works well!

At 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see your background in technical communication and training so well. Well-organized, well-written, specific, and easy to follow. I don't know that I will ever have to moderate a panel but I now now that if I ever do, I have superb instructions!

Kelly Bowers

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Laura E. Goodin said...

Thank you, Kelly!

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a bit surprised that more people moderating didn't take advantage of the page of moderating tips included in the packets that all program participants were given.


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