on panels

Oh life, it's bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I've said enough


About once every two years I end up on a panel I refer to as hellish. That happened at Mile Hi Con at the "Sexism in Geekdom" panel, and I've been thinking a lot about why it was such a free-for-all, sarcastic, audience-driven angerfest. I know I certainly wasn't at my best in that situation and I felt totally ragged afterward. I also wondered why I was there since the audience seemed much more interested in talking than listening to the panelists.

This is going to be a two-parter. First I'm going to address the mechanics of running a good panel so people walk out excited about the topic, not drained from the experience. Next time I'll get into more of the specifics of that particular panel and some thoughts I have on the topic of Sexism in Geekdom.

Cons desperately need more panels of 3-6 authors discussing a topic followed by 5-10 minutes of audience Q&A. Not nearly enough of that. @MykeCole

It's best if panelists: 
  • Arrive early.
  • Have their own microphones. 
  • Let the moderator sit in the middle of the table.  A reservation placard would be helpful, or a con volunteer can save it for them.
  • Chat with the audience casually beforehand if there's time. I highly recommend coming out from behind the table or off the stage to do so.
  • Treat your appearance as somewhat of a performance.
  • Only attend if they feel up to attending the panel. Sometimes you can fake it; don't come unless you really can. 
  • Let someone know if you can't make it.
  • Don't try to boil the ocean. Most panels are an hour long and most topics are bigger than an hour.
  • Keep strictly on topic.
  • Try to use work other than your own to illustrate a point unless the question is specific about wanting to know how panelists do something or about a facet of their work.
  • Politely disagree with other panelists. Conflict is interesting, just be nice about it.
  • Don't turn on microphones or speak into them early.
  • Don't sit down behind the table and talk to the audience or even a portion of it from the table, even sans microphone, before the panel starts.
  • Don't take any physical "position of authority" before your fellow panelists arrive.

It's best if moderators:
  • Prepare questions ahead of time. (amended by suggestion)
  • Start by introducing yourself,  the subject, and explain how the panel will be run. It's okay to establish control and authority.
  • Ask the audience to save your questions and comments until the end. (preferred, especially with audiences over twenty) 
  • Give panelists the bulk of the time to talk.
  • Give the audience time to ask questions at the end.
  • Let the audience know you'll call on them when all the panelists have had their say on a particular question if you want more of a discussion. (Discussion-style works best with audiences under twenty or so.)
  • Remind the audience that questions tend to extend a conversation; comments and anecdotes tend to stall conversation.
  • Ask for raised hands from the audience.
  • Keep firm control;  yes, even of panelists.
  • Let panelists introduce themselves first, tell them who should start and what order they should go in, or ask them by name.
  • Use gentle reminders ("we haven't heard from so-and-so yet on this topic yet", or "time is running short") if a panelist or audience member runs off at the mouth.
  • Either start a topic question at one end of the table or call on panelists by name.
  • Feel free to remind the audience members with raised hands that there will be time at the end for their questions.

It's best if the audience:
  • Is there to learn, not teach; to listen, not talk.
  • Sticks mainly to questions.
  • Raise hands and wait to be called on, even if those sitting in the front row.  
  • Especially those sitting on the front row.
  • Keep on topic. Don't try to boil the ocean.


Griffin Barber said...

Yes please!

Nic Widhalm said...

Amen. This should be required reading before cons.

Jenna Bird said...

At the first DCC I attended a panel and... I want to say Jesse Bullington was the moderator for it? (I may have to find my old notebook.) But I was amused & delighted when he started things off by asserting that there would be time for questions at the end - not comments. He wasn't rude, just direct... and after a day of having panels hijacked by opinionated audience members, it was refreshing to have a moderator point out that people came to these panels to hear from the panelists, not a random audience member.

I know I specifically avoid "sexism" oriented panels because of the way they tend to devolve.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Jenna, interesting. That sounds like something Jesse would say. It is annoying when the audience takes over. There's lots of chatting time for them at other places in the con. And I know I only go to panels for which I really, really want to hear the panelists.