I'm traveling (in Washington DC, acquiring blisters as I tramp round museums) so I'm a bit short on conversational topics right now (unless you want some poor quality vacation snapshots of the Apollo 11 command module, for example). However, there is a topic that has lately captured my attention, and this is my bully pulpit, so ... you know the drill.
The topic of the day: panels at conventions. If you've been to a conference, be it a science fiction convention or an academic one, you probably know the idea: a bunch of talking heads on stage, discussing some topic of interest to the audience (and possibly taking questions).
The reason I want to talk about them: I'm in demand for panels at SF cons. In fact, I've done seventeen of them in the past month and about 25 this year so far, and probably something like 300 of them in the past decade. I've been on some amazingly productive, fascinating discussions — and some that were completely unorganized fiascos. And in order to avoid having to repeat myself, here's my brain dump on how to organize a panel discussion in order to minimize the risk of things going wrong.
This is part #1 in a series of four blog postings on the topic of panels at conventions. And today I'm going to talk about that most universal of considerations — the environment. We don't usually give a lot of thought to the venue in which a panel discussion takes place, but that's a mistake. Get the environment wrong, and the panel is doomed to failure before it starts. So here's what I know about how you should arrange the environment for a panel.
There is a standard format for most panel discussions. In general, if you've got a group of speakers and an audience — and the two are not interchangeable — messing with the standard format is a bad idea.
The standard format is: start with a room, with walls and a door. The venue needs to be reasonably sound-proof, lest outsiders drown out the panelists (or disrupt their thoughts, which can be equally bad). Screen partitions dividing up the floor of a vast, echoing echoing aircraft hangar like venue with other panelists trying to out-shout each other over the dividers do not work. Neither do rooms located adjacent to a hall full of happy clappy types holding a revival sing-along, or a band rehearsing for the evening concert, or a disco. (I speak from experience of all of the above.)
The room should not be too hot or too cold. In practice, this means it needs working air conditioning or central heating and windows that open. Sauna huts are not suitable venues for hour-long discourses on the philosophical roots of H. P. Lovecraft; refrigerator warehouses don't work too well either. General rule of thumb: it will be warmer in the room when there is a packed audience inside. Human beings put out roughly 0.1-0.2kW of heat per person, so an audience of 60 people is like having three electric fan heaters going at full blast. If it's warm when it's empty, it will be unpleasantly hot when it's full.
Lighting helps. Not too much lighting; at one recent convention the main function area had a stage, and stage lighting — and a low ceiling, so that there was a bank of stage lights glaring at the panelists from just above eye level: every time I glanced at the audience I ended up with purple after-images burned into my retinas. If the panelists are asking for sun screen and mirrorshades, this is a bad sign.
There needs to be a table at the front, with chairs for all the participants (too many chairs is okay; not enough chairs is bad), and chairs for the audience facing the participants. Putting the participants on a stage or illuminating them with floodlights is optional, but the audience need to be able to see their faces. A circle of chairs with nobody in a position of authority sounds nice and politically correct, but once you get past about 20 seats it gets unmanageably big; also, it encourages audience participation ... which may not be what you want, if you're running a panel where some talking heads are meant to be holding forth from positions of authority.
If there are seats for more than about 20 people in the audience, you need to provide the speakers with amplification. Whether you think they need amplification or not in that particular room is irrelevant — some of your speakers will have laryngitis, some will be shy and speak in a low whisper, and on occasion it may be necessary for the moderator on the panel to firmly overrule a too-enthusiastic member of the audience.
Ideally each speaker needs a microphone in front of them while they're on stage. (Wired mikes in front of each occupied seat at the table are fine.) Sharing a mike with a fellow speaker who has halitosis is Not Fun. Neither is playing capture-the-flag with an obsessive hoarder who has got the Talking Stick and won't let go. If it's a big room (more than 20 seats) and the panel is going to take questions, budget for an extra radio mike and a gofer who can scurry around the audience, otherwise the audience are going to be treated to the panelists answering questions that they can't hear.
It's a good idea to have pre-printed name plates available for the panelists to stick on the table in front of the audience, so that the audience can tell them apart. Such name plates (or just folded pieces of paper) need to be IN LARGE PRINT so that people at the back of the room can read them.
The panelists will probably need something to drink if they're talking for an hour. A jug of water and some paper cups are an absolute minimum; make sure there are enough clean cups for each panelist, and keep the jug full during the panel. Too much is better than too little; estimate half a litre of water per panelist per hour and you won't go far wrong. Beer, coffee, and other liquids also work well and a well-run conventions usually have a green room with staff ready to take orders from panelists, and deliver their chosen beverages.
Okay, that covers the environment (albeit minimally, without much depth; I may have to add to this as I go on). Tomorrow I'll talk about the care and handling of panelists.