It’s the end of March, and that means that even as winter leaves, convention season shall soon be upon us.

Conventions are coming

Right now, I’m only planning on AwesomeCon and BrickFair, both local events. I’ve been invited to speak at AwesomeCon (though I don’t know which of my proposals they’ll pick; their panel schedule has been delayed); but while BrickFair is awesome, I won’t be there as an editor, writer, or anything but a guy who likes art made out of Lego bricks.

may be at the Catholic Writers Conference (in New Jersey) and possibly at Capclave (DC area again), but I’m not certain. I’ve been invited to speak at the former, but it may conflict with another obligation; and Capclave is just too far out to plan right now. I originally wanted to go to DragonCon again as well, but my schedule just got too full for that part of the year.

Regardless, I wanted to share some tips for one of the things I do well at conventions: how to be a panel moderator.

Being a moderator is a vital role at conventions, as we’re all geeking out and could (and do) spend hours talking. When it’s time for someone else to speak, though, you need someone in charge to keep things flowing. Sadly, most of the time I don’t see people who know how to do that. It ranges from those who are too timid to take command (very common) to those who get caught up in the topic themselves and ignore others (fortunately not so common, but very painful to watch).

Last year at AwesomeCon, I was put in charge of seven authors — yes, seven — on the Worldbuilding and Magic panel. If I allowed all seven to answer each question, then even limiting them to one minute each, we had only seven questions to get through. Since I wanted at least two from the audience, that was going to take some firm handling. As it was, we managed to get through eight (I had prepared ten; I’ll explain why in a moment), and several of the authors enthusiastically praised my skill at herding cats.

Be an Interviewer. This is vitally important. As the moderator, you are there to ask questions, not answer them. If you’re in a panel of no more than three other people, you can get away with a more conversational format; but anything beyond that is difficult unless all the panelists know each other. Even in a small panel, though, you have to watch yourself. A couple years ago at Capclave, I saw a three-person panel that turned out to be just the moderator having a conversation with her friend, while a legend of science fiction sat ignored on her right, having given up trying to get a word in edgewise, and spent the rest of the panel grinding his teeth.

Don’t ever lose track of your panel. Go into this with the expectation that you’re keeping the spotlight on other people. You’re not there to reminisce, but rather to direct the performance for the audience to enjoy. Keep that in mind, and you won’t get sucked into the geekout yourself.

Be Firm. Don’t hesitate. Don’t back down. Authors can smell your fear.

*cough* Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But you do need to be firm. As I said, we’re all geeking out. That means that the other panelists are bursting with ideas and concepts and anecdotes and examples. They want to get it out while they can. You need to be forceful at times to keep the conversation flowing and on-topic.

Incidentally, this has become such a habit with me that when I was a panelist at a non-writing event recently, I found myself watching my own time and policing what I had to say.

Do Research. Unless you wind up being the moderator at the last minute (this happened to me once), you should have plenty of time to look up who else is on the panel, what their genres are, what their differences are, and maybe even read a book or two. Even just knowing the back-cover blurbs on their books will help.

Then, do research on your theme. Look up who’s doing what in that subject. Find interesting points that might not come up automatically, and tie them back into your panelists’ expertise.

Prepare Questions. When you’ve got particularly experienced panelists, you can get very short answers that are focused on the topic at hand; but I’ve seen multi-chart-topper authors ruminate and backtrack, so prepare for that. Most of the time you don’t know what you’re going to get until it happens.

When choosing your questions, don’t give extraordinarily open ones. Keep your own questions narrowly focused, and your panelists will have less room for tangents. (I am the king of tangents, as my friends and students alike will tell you, so trust me on this! This is why I’m so firm on the “be an interviewer” point. I know how easy it is to slip away.) If someone cannot reasonably answer your question in sixty seconds, it’s probably too broad.

And prepare more questions than you need — just in case the panelists get through things faster, or some of your questions become invalid, or an audience member asks something you picked out.

Stay Flexible. No plan survives contact with the panel. Someone will say something interesting, and you’ll want to focus on that. Or you didn’t realize that one of the panelists had another area of expertise that you can now exploit. Or maybe one or more of your questions turns out to be a dud and you need to improvise with a different topic.

Things happen. Be prepared to do something differently if necessary.

Take Notes. Keep a paper and pencil, or at least a smart phone or tablet, in front of you. This lets you jot down things to clarify in your next question, or note the time, or just to record something particularly interesting.

But even if you don’t feel like doing any of that, do it for this reason. Record the panelists’ names and their seating locations. This will often be panels with people you’ve never met before. Don’t take the risk of forgetting their names. (And watch out for them switching places. This happened to me.)

Moderating a panel is an art form, and it depends on a lot of factors, some of which are completely beyond your control. Fortunately, most of the time you can plan for the problems and adjust as they occur.

Don’t just assume everything will go right, though. You need to prepare. Being a moderator means more than just being a panelist with a bit of authority. Yes, that means it’s more work. Many panelists don’t want to be moderators. Personally, I prefer solo lecturing. But I’m also good at moderating panels, and I have to admit there’s a flavor of satisfaction I get from running a particularly good panel that I just can’t duplicate on my own.

So keep these bits of advice in mind, in case you wind up being a moderator, either now or in the future. And if you can think of anything I might have forgotten, please, place it in the comments below.