Thoughts on Convention Panels
Before I get into this, I want to say up front that I truly appreciate the people who volunteer their time and energy putting conventions together. A con takes a tremendous amount of work, pretty much all of which is done entirely for the love. While I sometimes gripe about disorganization or other issues, I want to recognize and thank everyone who commits huge chunks of their lives to making these events happen.
And now, on to Jim’s random thoughts…
Authors have egos. Big egos. I mean, we expect people to pay money for the privilege of reading our awesome words! Now, some authors are better at managing the ego than others. In a perfect world, we would be able to measure this and create ego-balanced panels. (“Please place your hand on the pad, Mister Hines. Hm … looks like you have an ego score of 108 milli-Sheens.”)
In the real world, you’re going to get the occasional ego clash. While these can be exciting in a “Look at the shiny exploding train wreck” kind of way, it’s not a lot of fun for those on the train. So if the experienced con staff says not to put Person A on a panel with Person B, please listen.
8 people is too many. 7 people is also too many. In general, so is 6, if you’re talking about a one-hour panel. Personally, I think 5 should be the limit in most cases. Anything more and someone ends up getting shut out, or everyone’s competing to try to be heard, and it just becomes a lot less fun for the panelists. Probably for the audience too.
Pay attention to balance. Look, if I do three panels in a weekend, I will notice that you only put a single female panelists on two of my panels, and none on the third. Sure, maybe this was yet another statistical fluke, but maybe not. (Also, the first person to cry “Quotas!” gets a goblin kick to the giblets.)
Don’t be sexist. On a related note, if there’s only one woman on a panel, then maybe you shouldn’t be constantly interrupting or talking over her. Especially when she’s better qualified than you are to talk about the topic at hand. I’m sure this is rarely a deliberate or conscious attempt to silence women, but it still comes off as dickish. (And yes, interrupting and talking over people in general is also rather dickish. Only doing it to women? Sexist and dickish.)
Moderators are important. Please designate them beforehand.
If you’re moderating a panel:
- Please make sure everyone on the panel gets the chance to speak. Authors have egos, but many of us are also rather introverted and hesitant to jump in.
- Please do not check in with your two friends, then ignore the other panelists.
- Please be willing to shut down the audience member who spends five minutes telling stories about the story he’s writing about a steampunk elf/puma warrior that was rejected by Publisher X after three years, thus proving that all publishers are corrupt thieves.
A quick self-promotional bit is fine at the start of the panel and maybe at the end. But unless the name of the panel is “[YOUR NAME] And His/Her Awesome Book of Awesomeness!” please don’t spend the entire time talking about your book. Also, hold on a sec … I have to go send a panel suggestion in to ConFusion.
But I want to SELL ALL THE BOOKS! As opposed to the rest of the panelists, who are only doing this for the groupies? Well, in my experience, being interesting, being funny, and contributing to the discussion results in far more audience members remembering your name and seeking out your work than obnoxiously working your stuff into every single thing you say during the panel.
Watch the time. If you’re on a panel, please try to finish on time. Better yet, wrap up a few minutes early so there’s time to chat with folks afterward and the next panel can move in and set up.
Guests of Honor should generally have more than one panel. I’m just saying…
November 15, 2011 @ 9:37 am
“milli-Sheens” 🙂 Love that.
I agree with the moderator, though I would also add that it helps if the moderator is at least slightly interested in the topic. Instead of introducing themselves as “I’m X, I’m just here to moderate but I don’t know what anyone is talking about.” While moderating is technically a skill, it helps from the perception point of things.
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 9:39 am
Agreed. In my perfect world, a moderator would be 1) knowledgeable about the subject, 2) good at moderating, and 3) prepared.
November 15, 2011 @ 9:47 am
Oooo, a self-promotion panel sounds like fun. “Sell me your book in 10 minutes or less” or “Buy my words!”. Give all the guests even time to sell their books to the audience. I wonder if an audience would show up to the panel?
Daniel J. Hogan
November 15, 2011 @ 9:53 am
You hit the nail on the head, especially with the moderator stuff. I’m not a fan of the ‘first or last person to show up is the moderator’ rule. The few panels I have been on where we had a moderator ahead of time flowed much better.
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:04 am
If the panel mirrors what I’ve seen online, you’d be more likely to end up with panelists sitting there trying to sell their books to each other…
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:06 am
I was going to include a bit about the various games we play to pick a moderator, but it got long.
I’m a big fan of the pre-con programming questionaire that asks people what they’d like to do and whether they’d be willing to moderate and so on, which makes it easier to designate moderators up front.
Jason M. Robertson
November 15, 2011 @ 10:09 am
Ah yes, I walked into the end of ‘The Future of Publishing’ because I was looking forward to the next panel and just gaped at the hugely overpopulated table. As I came in it appeared as if the panel was entertaining a guest lecturer to boot…
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:17 am
Heh. Though in that case, at least the person in question was very much qualified to speak on the subject, which isn’t always the case. (I was a but surprised he wasn’t on the panel, actually.)
November 15, 2011 @ 10:18 am
Actually, sometimes the BEST moderators are the ones with only limited knowledge of the subject, but MAD moderatorial chops. These are the mods who get everybody involved in a discussion, and who use talking points from one panelist’s two-minute response to generate questions that drive the next ten minutes of discussion.
The best thing about a mod with limited subject matter knowledge is that he/she will not use moderatorial power to dominate the discussion. S/he’ll be a guiding, almost invisible hand shepherding the panel into glorious green pastures where everybody looks good (in part because everybody will know more about the subject than the moderator.)
So… I guess I’m a proponent for “moderator as limited participant.”
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:22 am
Ooh, that’s a good point. That way you get someone who’s invested in moderating a good discussion as opposed to worrying about getting his or her own oh-so-important-and-clever points in.
November 15, 2011 @ 10:22 am
I was an in the audience for a panel that I thought would be interesting. There were three men and one woman on the panel.
The woman was obviously a first time panelist, but she was well prepared and had really interesting things to say whenever she spoke. Which, unfortunately was only twice in a panel that went 75 minutes. The moderator basically did exactly what you said: went to his friends first and ignored the woman. Too bad-she was way more interesting than the men who were wildly unprepared for the topic at hand. In fact, they didn’t seem to have done any prep at all and fell back on telling stories about famous authors they knew.
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:24 am
Unfortunately, this is not unusual…
November 15, 2011 @ 10:25 am
You could make it a game. Pitch your book in the form of a poem (type of poem to be drawn on the spot). Or pitch the person to your left’s book.
November 15, 2011 @ 10:40 am
I attended an awful panel at this year’s Readercon – while it had a moderator, she clearly had an agenda. The panel had two women, two men, plus mod, who announced at the beginning that the “white males” on the panel had no right to talk, then spent the whole panel interrupting/arguing with them. THEN opened for questions, and though there were a sea of hands, only just happened to select three audience members in a row who exactly agreed with her (thy made statements, didn’t ask questions). Later, with these friends in tow, she stalked one of the male panelists to his signing table to continue to berate him until paying customers standig behind her asked I she could stop so they could get they’re books signed.
November 15, 2011 @ 10:41 am
Apologies for the misspellings (via phone today)
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:46 am
I think I remember hearing about that panel after Readercon, actually. Ugh.
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 10:47 am
“Or pitch the person to your left’s book.”
I’ve done that before, actually. I find it a lot more comfortable to occasionally plug books by my fellow panelists. That doesn’t feel as tacky, somehow. (As long as I don’t go overboard with it.)
November 15, 2011 @ 12:08 pm
I was at World Fantasy last month — saw a lot of panels and was on one. After reading this post, I have a greater appreciation for how well it was put together. Panels had four people plus a designated moderator. Panelists seemed to share time well, not a lot of self-promotion, and panels seemed to have a good variety of genders and age (the one I was on actually had three women panelists).
November 15, 2011 @ 12:30 pm
I’ve been the moderator with no background on the topic*. At that point, my intro is “I’m Vicki Rosenzweig and I’m your moderator,” and I hope, hard, that the rest of the panel has at least turned up in the green room so I can get some idea of what they’re prepared to talk about.
I’ve also dealt with showing up last at a panel and having a friend smile and say “Hi, you’re moderating.” In his favor, I think I’d talked about being reasonably good at it. And I’ve done the “damn it, someone has to moderate this” when one panelist was going on at length and off topic. The trick there is to accept that you’re not going to get to talk about the topic: I spent 35 minutes saying things like “Sandra, what do you think?” and calling on audience members. Having done that once, I agree heartily with you on having a moderator designated ahead of time.
*Wiscon has a “drop in moderator” thing, where a person can volunteer to moderate specific panels ahead of time; to be added as a moderator to panels no one else has moderated for (with the chance to say no to any specific panel), or even “it’s 3:00 and we need someone to moderate this panel at 8, because the original moderator is dealing with a family crisis.”
November 15, 2011 @ 12:55 pm
I thought Wiscon did the moderator thing very well. And I didn’t mind the one moderator who came in and said “I don’t know anything about this, so I’m just moderating.”
November 15, 2011 @ 1:06 pm
Yes, but the moderator should also be prepared to drive the conversation if that is necessary. Like when the wheels come off the bus of conversation. I take my cues on this regard from Paul Melko, who was the first panelist I saw who brought notes. Like a boy scout, you should be prepared. But I agree, the moderator is there to get the other participants to shine.
Which is why the moderator shouldn’t be the GoH and should be assigned early in the process.
November 15, 2011 @ 1:33 pm
Having sat through way too many panels where all of the above happened (but most especially male ego-boosting from platform and audience, since so many men still seem to think only they can write, published or otherwise), I agree.
Of course, these are often the same men who don’t see any truth to the rumor that there is such a thing as male privilege.
That is all.
November 15, 2011 @ 1:33 pm
One cannot emphasize “a con takes a tremendous amount of work” enough. In one particular fandom I saw — I don’t pay as much attention anymore — new conventions pop up regularly. Often the planners involved had little to no experience organizing anything on such a large scale, and the whole thing turned out to be a mess. In the excitement of the moment they only thought of it as their big party, but they didn’t consider all the work and responsibility involved.
I strongly agree with your moderator comment. At one convention this year the moderator arrived late, quipped about how she’d been drinking, then spent a good ten minutes joking about it. I found that disrespectful to the panelists and attendees. I’ve also seen multiple panels where the talk wasn’t anything like what the schedule described because the moderator allowed the talk to meander completely off topic for the entire hour.
November 15, 2011 @ 1:42 pm
Oh my. I read about it here: http://carriecuinn.com/2011/07/24/readercon-2011-recap-thursday-friday/
I hope the con organizers talked to her about it and she’s not allowed to moderate again. I’d go so far as saying I wouldn’t want her on a panel again. I wouldn’t trust her to behave herself.
November 15, 2011 @ 1:56 pm
I don’t know what will happen with her, though I’ve heard that absolutely nothing was done about it at all – whether that’s true remains to be seen. I don’t mind quiet, non-public discipline that results in her not being a moderator again, and I avoided too many specifics because I don’t want to cause long-term problems for the specific individual (who may eventually learn why that was wrong and should be allowed to move past it), but I do know that I, as well as others, complained to the con staff at the time, and I never heard anything back from them.
Jim C. Hines
November 15, 2011 @ 2:00 pm
I’ve only been to WFC twice, but both times the panels struck me as more … professional. Not quite the word I want, but I’m having trouble coming up with a better one.
November 15, 2011 @ 4:45 pm
It seems there really should be some way of keeping track of how moderators do. [nod/sigh] At a panel this last WorldCon, the moderator was clearly there to get as much attention as possible, and keeping the panel running and balanced came a distant second. Even when someone in the audience directed a question at someone else, asking something like, “So, [name of person who just won an award last night for doing this], how would you handle X?” and before that person could even take a breath, the moderator had jumped in with an explanation of how she would do it, because clearly everyone was there to hear all about her.
On how much work it takes to put a con together, I can definitely testify — I’ve worked many conventions, both SF cons and professional conferences, since I was in my late teens. But if you’re going to do it, you need to do it right because people are paying money to attend, and when you start charging money for something you’re declaring yourself to be a pro, in the sense of having all your ducks in a row and being responsible for problems and glitches.
I was at a small conference put on by all first-timers just last month where the organizers decided not to have any panels, because they personally don’t like them. Umm, okay, it’s their show, they can do what they want. But some of the writers and publishers who’d sponsored events like socials and signings and parties (official events in function rooms; there were no room parties) wanted to have panels. One I encountered in progress during a small social might well have started spontaneously, but in another one a publisher who’d been invitation-only until very recently was giving a whole presentation, with some of their staff, on what they were looking for and the submission process and how they did covers and promo and such. In both cases, the rooms weren’t set for panels, but there were people filling the room, crowded into corners, and squeezed in and around the doorway on both sides. In the publisher’s talk, the room was large enough that it had some other furniture stacked up to one side, and there were people sitting on whatever horizontal surface they could hop up onto. I think one of the larger surfaces being used as seating was a piano.
First, if there are going to be panels anyway, the rooms need to be set for panels. The organizers should’ve either policed things better (accepting that breaking up these talks would cause some ill will) or bowed to the reality that not everyone agrees with them about preferred conference activities. And second, if they don’t fix this one way or the other in the future, people are going to keep sitting on things that weren’t meant to be sat on, and one of these times something’s going to break, the hotel’s going to add a nice line item to their bill, and the person(s) who fell into the wreckage might well also present them with medical bills.
I’m sure the organizers never anticipated this, but that’s sort of the point — someone in charge needs to know what they’re doing, and have enough experience, or at least access to people with experience who are consulted regularly, to foresee this sort of problem.
November 16, 2011 @ 7:09 pm
As to your first point, when I was running programming at Rivercon, my initial questionnaire contained the following:
Is there anyone that you do not want to be on the same panel with?
Is there anyone you would especially like to be on a panel with (we cannot guarantee anything, but we will try).?
Jim C. Hines
November 16, 2011 @ 7:13 pm
The mere fact that you were sending out a programming questionnaire earns you many points in my book!