Moderating a Panel at a Convention

- by Victoria Janssen

I attended Arisia, a science fiction convention, recently. I moderated a panel on “writing while having a day job.” I’ve been attending sf cons since I was a young teenager, and serving on panels, and moderating them, for more than a decade, and they’re a great way not only to meet a new audience, but to meet other writers.

Preparing to Moderate

1. Read the panel description ahead of time. Think through what the description seems to be asking for–you might want to make notes about the direction you think the panel ought to take. Consider any other panels you might have heard on this subject. How will your take differ?

2. The panel might require research, or at the very least a list of questions that will help direct the discussion. What questions will you ask? How would you answer them?

Research might include books or it might consist of reading a series of recent blog articles on the topic. I always feel more confident if I’ve made notes ahead of time, even if I don’t end up using them.

3. Decide if you’re going to ask questions and answer them, or only ask questions of the other panelists. In most cases, the moderator should be prepared to participate in the discussion.

4. Look over the list of other panelists and, if you don’t know them, email them, or at least look up their website. Note down some questions specific to their expertise which might be relevant. Also remember that last-minute schedule changes happen, so don’t count on any one panelist to carry the discussion.

5. Look over your schedule for the convention and the venue itself, to make sure you’ll have adequate time to get from place to place physically and adequate time for meals between panels. If you’re moderating, you really don’t want to be late!

The Panel in Process

1. Be on time. In fact, be early. It may or may not be your job, but you should make sure there are enough chairs for the panelists, the table (if there is one) is cleaned off, etc..

2. Give a little extra time at the beginning for latecomers, say five minutes or so. Otherwise, you risk being repeatedly interrupted during introductions. I usually let the audience know I’m doing this, so they don’t think we’re slacking!

3. Announce the title of the panel and read the description. Have the panelists briefly introduce themselves. Sometimes, I ask them to answer a general question about the panel topic as part of their introduction.

4. Give a brief description of how you want the panel to work. This can include comments on how the topic will be focused, and procedural notes such as “we’ll take questions at the end” or “please raise your hand if you have a question or a comment.” If you say this, make sure to keep your promise and leave some time for audience questions!

5. This is the part that takes practice. Let each panelist say what she has to say, but if you sense audience attention is lagging or one person seems to be taking over the discussion, it’s okay to ask another panelist to follow up on something they just said. One strategy is to say something like, “That’s really fascinating. Harriet, could you give us your opinion on that?” It’s also okay to ask a panelist another question to help them change direction, or to note that “we seem to be heading off-topic, so even though this is interesting, I’d like to get back to how the monkeys are going to handle NASA.”

6. You might get many audience comments. In some situations, it’s okay to ask them to hold their comments until the end. In others, you want audience discussion to take place. If so, try to keep things organized by calling on people in the order they raised their hand, and don’t let any one person dominate the discussion.

7. Keep an eye on the time. Let the audience know when there are about ten minutes left. You might want to leave time for each panelist to give a final comment.

My final comment is, if you aren’t sure you can do it, give it a try and find out!

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