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Panel discussions at SF conventions, part 2: keeping the panelists happy

First of all, subjects: many cons build their program around a core concept, and try to build a stream of program items that focus on it; for example, "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy", or "space opera since Star Wars", or "Terry Pratchett: is he great, or what?". Someone — hopefully a bunch of someones — have to come up with a suitable set of topics for discussion around these themes, and ideally match them to the known or declared interests of folks attending the convention. When it's done well, it shows; titles make sense, there's a paragraph-long explanation that introduces what the programming folks feel the discussion should be about, and the panelists known what they're meant to be talking about. But sometimes it doesn't work.

Prime indicators that all is not well with programming include the presence of cryptic panel titles with no explanation ("arsefardles we have known and loved" — yes, but what exactly is an arsefardle?), topics with no obvious relation to the declared theme of the program stream ("rockets to Mars" is not a good match for "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy"), and wholly inappropriate panelists (the talking heads for "rockets to Mars" find themselves on "the matter of Britain in Arthurian fantasy" and vice versa). Even worse signs include: there is no designated moderator on the list of panelists — the moderator's job is to keep the discussion flowing and to make sure everyone gets a chance to say their piece — or the moderator is a famously opinionated egomaniac with a bushel of well-sharpened axes sitting behind them, or (worst of all) there are no panelists.

A note on duration. Talking in front of an audience is, funnily enough, a tiring job. Some folks have lots of stamina, but a general rule of thumb is that one hour on stage is about as tiring as three hours in the audience. Scheduling a panelist for more than 3 hours a day on stage is, therefore, pushing the limits for most people. And this supposes a full panel, with perhaps 3-4 talking heads (and a moderator to keep things going). If it's a two-person discussion, consider that each participant is doing the work of two heads on a bigger panel — two of those in one day is more than enough for most participants.

Planning a convention program is hard work — selecting your participants, arranging your list of topics, matching the two and making sure they know what they're talking about, and then turning it into a viable schedule — it all takes time. The programming committee's hard work is invisible when it goes smoothly; most panelists only notice when things go wrong — when they're scheduled for six hours of monologuing in front of a mike on the Saturday night, or their moderator turns out to be their stalker. How can you, as an aspiring program committee member, manage to simultaneously draw attention to yourself and make your panelists' convention more exciting?

Well, you can start by trying to make sure that every program participant finds themselves sitting on stage with four other panelists, one of whom is moderating by monologue (not letting anyone else introduce themselves, much less express an opinion). Alternatively, you can make them the centre of attention by putting them in the hot seat with one other panelist (who is an expert on late 18th century Ruritanian poetry but knows nothing about the subject in hand). Extra points for ensuring that panelists and audience end up in different places entirely, thus ensuring a wonderfully broadening cross-fertilization of ideas: call BINGO if two of the panelists fail to arrive at the con, one doesn't understand the topic, one is insane, and one's succumbed to laryngitis.

Scheduling is really easy to handle. Panelists need exercise, which is why the proficient program planner will schedule the most arthritic septuagenarians for three back-to-back panels at opposite ends of a large hotel. It's well known than SF writers are good at sprinting through crowds while maintaining perfect bladder control. Giving them time off between panels is contrary to natural law — you don't have to pay them a bent penny, as they're obviously willing volunteers, so why not work them for all they're worth?

Finally, never underestimate the importance of scheduling parents with small children for dinner-time panels, or travelers from foreign parts for panels that kick off an hour before their flight lands. If a panelist tells you beforehand that they're not available at certain times of day, they're just slacking — you don't need to pay any attention to that stuff.

28 Comments

1:

What's the history of "bent penny" -- the UK banks/stores wouldn't take them? They didn't go into machines?

Also, arrange for ASL translators or fast typists for deaf panelists. If the tables are raised, get ramps with handrails. Make sure the entry door to the room is at the back of the audience -- having people come in late directly in front of panetlists will distract them.

Not everybody who wants to be on panels should be on them (benefits both audience and panelists). Drunk panelists should be caffeinated before they say stupid things that will be remembered for years.

If materials/papers will be passed out to the audience, all panelists should have them the day before. There should be at least five minutes between panels in the same room.

Maybe more later.

2:

When I run panels, I usually give my panelists a general idea of the questions I'm going to ask. It eliminates a lot of the "um, um" and gives them time to formulate a thoughtful answer. Of course, I don't give the the EXACT question, just a general idea.

3:

I greatly enjoyed that post. And as I'm involved in the Anticipation program, I was taking notes.

Oz

4:

ASL translators would be particularly useful for overseas panellists who speak BSL or Auslan or some other sign language.

5:

@1 "Bent" in this context means "crooked" means "associated with crooks" means "counterfeit". Not "bent as in bend".

It's an English English thing.

6:

the moderator is a famously opinionated egomaniac with a bushel of well-sharpened axes sitting behind them,

Check.

7:

Oh and, "arsefardles we have known and loved"

Check.

And don't forget the one where the moderator with the axes has a completely different interpretation of what an arsefardle is to any of the other panelists or anyone in the audience.

8:

All this can be even more fun when there is no alternative source of meals within convenient reach of the hotel. You can help the hotel management by usiung three consecutive panels on the same subject to reduce the peak load on the catering facilities.

9:

You missed the other classic of scheduling the panelist who everyone knows has a brain that doesnt boot any earlier than midday for the first panel after breakfast.

10:

Don't forget that panelists must under no circumstances introduce themselves. If any audience member doesn't know who you are and recognise you by sight, they have no business coming to the panel in the first place.

Of course, sometimes an overenthusiastic moderator might ask the panel to introduce themselves in turn - but don't worry. Even though it might be hard to avoid revealing your name under these cirumstances, the classic "I have no idea why I'm on this panel" move can neatly avoid revealing any further information that might assist any audience members inconsiderate enough to be unaware of your CV.

11:

Another useful tactic (especially for the gripe session, which I suppose counts as a panel) is to hide the battery for the shotgun microphone that is being used for questions from the floor. It is important to ensure that no spares are available.

Cadbury. 3:O)>

12:

Gah!

What about the convention panels commentator who starts a thread of seemingly earnest articles covering the dos and don'ts who then arbitrarily slips into sarcasm in the second instalment without warning. Hmm.

(Enjoyed it, recognised the types, but this one is a breed apart from the last. The bile doth overflow...)

On topic: I always liked the line often displayed by WotC ppl - I'm the expert. If I share with you, I'm no longer the expert. Therefore, I'm gonna sit here and look important instead.
(MaRo - I is looking at you (but sadly not listening) - I even shared a cab with this guy (many years ago) and he was too important to talk!!!)

13:

Incidentally, if Charlie or any Orbital attendees want to offer any specific feedback about the last Eastercon, we're eager to hear it (via website@orbital2008.org). There's already a fair mix at http://www.orbital2008.org/feedback.html.

14:

Steve:

Excellent advice, but your link is fucked. It should be http://www.orbital2008.org/feedback.html.

15:

Nothing really to add to this installment. Back when I was running the programming department for ConDor in San Diego, we always asked our panelists "What days and hours are you available?" "How many events are you willing to participate in per day/in the entire convention?" and "May we schedule you for two panels in a row?" (the answers being Yes/If absolutely necessary/No). My successor has carried on that custom, I'm glad to say.

He's also continued sending out lists of actual panel topics, with titles that strive to be self-explanatory. I remember the time I was invited to be a panelist at another small convention—and got a list of broad areas such as "hard science fiction," "horror," and "gaming," with a request to indicate which ones interested me, and a prospect of being assigned to whatever topics within a broad area the programming staff thought might be suitable based on whatever they knew about me. I actually talked with the head of their programming department and told her that it would be more helpful to have a list of actual topics to choose among, and she assured me that the way she did it was the standard practice at science fiction conventions. I really hope she was wrong; not only did it risk putting me on panels I had no knowledge of or interest in, but also it risked my not appearing on a panel outside my usual range that I was interested in for some quirky reason. (For example, some years ago ConDor had a panel on "Designing pantheons," which we expected would draw in mostly fantasy authors—and Vernor Vinge wanted to be on it!)

Of course, coming up with self-explanatory panel titles is a tricky business; there's always the odd title that seems perfectly clear to the programming staff but confuses program participants. But certainly a programming department should try to see and fix such problems.

16:

In regard to #2, is the job of the moderator to "run the panel" and "ask questions"? Or is the job to moderate? I have been on panels where the moderator took over and totally directed the conversation by asking very narrowly focused questions that really didn't give the panelists the scope to have an interesting and organic conversation. In my opinion, the moderator should have some questions ready to ask if the panel seems to be wandering or floundering, but I think it works better if you just let the panelists say what they'd like to say and the moderator just pokes and prods when necessary to keep things moving and on topic. It's a real skill.

17:

I can't remember which con it was but I remember the moderators of my panels contacting me nad the other panelists a week or so out from the con to discuss what we would talk about at out panel items.

Other mistakes Prog ops can make is scheduling two panles on almost the same topic...but not quiet, with some of the same panelists, in the same room back to back.

Or my bugbear that doesn't happen too much in the UK is being on panels where the other panelists are too busy trying to sell their latest book etc than actually taking part in the discussion...or worse the panelist whose name I thankfully have blanked from my memory who insisted on relating everypoint under discussion to her own writing even when it wasn't appropriate!

18:

re:#15
Moderating can be quite difficult. It's equally bad for the moderator to take over the panel, or to let a panelist take over the panel. As with scheduling the program it's most visible when it fails and little noticed when done well.

19:

Lots to comment on here.

Building a program around a theme can give it coherence. A difficuly with it is persuading the programming team to reject good material that doesn't fit with the theme. A themed programme needs a strong editor. (Note to self: must sign up for Fourth Street Fantasy.)

Some programme participants wouldn't be satisfied with only three hours a day. Others would find three hours excessive. I've come across both scenarios.

Programme items are only as good as their write-up in the listings. If it's going to be a good item you have to tell the audience that. Ideally the listings should fulfil the role of a reviewer, telling the audience which items they are likely to enjoy, and equally importantly telling them which ones they won't like.

Three good panellists are better than three good panellists and a nonentity. One good talking-head is better than any number of nebbishes on a panel.

Just because someone wants to be on a programme item you don't have to create make-weight items for them. Less is more.

@2, @15: The moderator's job is to make the panel work. Just what that involves will depend on the panel and the participants.

Programme design is like tech support. You don't notice it unless something goes wrong, and nobody phones you back to tell you you were right.

20:

Apropos #13; I thought Orbital worked pretty well, on the programming level. The only real problem was the lights-in-the-eyes problem in the main program area, and I already flagged that -- it's a tech ops rather than programming issue anyway.

21:

sabik @4, sorry, that was a little US-centric.

Shan @5, thanks!

22:

I couldn't help but think of Accelerando when I read this article: http://computerworld.co.nz/news.nsf/tech/2F5C3C5D68A380EDCC257423006E71CD

Freakiness abounds.

23:

I wonder if I'm the only person reading this thread and trying to remember the time that I put Charlie on at a con (in my case -ference rather than -vention), ticking off all the complaints thinking "I'm pretty sure I didn't do _that_ to the poor chap." Probably not.

24:

Here are a couple more ideas for making your panels exciting, both of which I encountered during my most recent panelist experience:

1. Leave out the description of a panel, so that panelists can come to it with totally different ideas of what they should be talking about.

2. Throw a panelist into the mix who seems sane, qualified, and articulate, but who will insist on bursting into mini-lectures on something other than the panel topic.

More details available here: http://www.bidalaka.com/picofarad/pf12/orycon.html

25:

Hah! This post killed me. I've definitely witnessed a few of these mishaps and/or know people who have.

"Terry Pratchett: is he great, or what?"

This is actually going to be the theme of ALL of our panels. Every one! Won't that be FUN!? Heh.

One good thing about the TP Con I'm involved in is that several guests are veterans of the UK Discworld Cons, so we are at least sure they know something on the various Discworld-related subjects. :)

I think most of the things you mentioned (albeit tongue-in-cheek) are things we've considered and have a decent handle on. The one that scares me the most is the moderators thing, though - because I've seen times where the panel is perfectly organized and fine, and then the moderator, who someone thought would be good at the job, turns out to either be domineering or have no control over anything. I feel like maybe the actual panelists and/or mods are the least predictable bit, even if you think you've matched everyone well.

My favorite panel-gone-wrong was one that I witnessed on how to publicize your book(s), beyond what publishers do for them. Various authors gave their perspectives on giving out bookmarks to advertise upcoming books, blogging about books, etc. And then one of the panelists, a grumpy middle-aged author (I can't recall his name), said, "None of it works. It's all hopeless." or something to that effect, and then he was off and running on how, basically, life sucks, and any money you invest in advertising is never regained, and the moderator just couldn't stop him. It was a glorious trainwreck.

Um. But I hope it doesn't happen at *our* con.

26:

Thanks for acknowledging how hard programming really is in addition to listing all the common flaws in doing it! You might be interested in a moderator tips doc that I developed over several years of running Program(me) Operations that we usually distribute in the program panelist packets: http://smofbabe.net/moderatortips.html

As for the panelists getting together beforehand to talk about the panel topic, I think it's a good idea for everyone on the panel to at least agree on what the topic actually is beforehand. However, I don't usually think it's a good idea for them to talk too much about the topic amongst themselves beforehand because sometimes it takes the zing out of the panel if the panelists have already heard each other's clever comments or interesting insights.

27:

@26: Nods. Iain Coleman and I run "How to be a panellist/moderator" programme items which cover the same ground (and spends most of their time on dealing with sociopaths...). I'll add the blurb to the Orbital website.

We get interest from people who haven't done it before, and they tell us they find it helpful. Unfortunately, you can't force people to attend or read advice....

28:

Making notes of what is said here for future reference. Personally I send panelists a list of topics (with descriptions) and ask them what they would like to be on. Of course this means that sometimes the panels I really wanted have to be dropped cause no-one wants to do that.
Mind you I know that in at least one case I must have forgotten to add the list to the email to a panelist.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on April 7, 2008 10:51 PM.

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