A few months ago we talked a little about conventions. They are great places to meet other writers, editors and fans. While many people go to have fun, others go for business related things such as networking. No matter what your reason for going, it’s also best to always remember to remain professional.
One of those professional opportunities that authors, artists, publishers and editors get to participate in and listen to are panels. Panels are discussions between selected professionals on topics that interest those who attend the convention. They can cover a wide variety of topics such as costume designs or editing. The panelists speak about the topic, answer questions about the subject and try to encourage people into discussions. They are great fun, and you can learn a lot. But what does it take to be a good panelist or a good audience member?
A Good Panelist
First, we are going to look at what makes a good panelist. For those who have been to conventions and listened to panels, you know there are some fantastic ones and some well, not so good ones. At times, it’s the subject but other times it’s the speakers. A panelist who is prepared to discuss the topic, engages the audience, is courteous, and doesn’t make more than the obligatory point to their books, is often one of the better panelists in the room.
To be a good panelist you must first be prepared. Most of the time when you are invited to speak on a panel, you are given the topics that will be discussed. Most of the time you are put on discussions that you are familiar with. But sometimes you get tossed into an arena you’ve never stepped in before.
If you are given a topic you aren’t familiar with, it’s time to do some research. It’s something we writers are probably very familiar with. Get to know the topic, the history and try to think up some questions that might arise. Who knows, you might just have the answer someone was looking for!
Many a fan has been disappointed when they sit down for a panel and their favorite author or artist isn’t there. If you are asked to be on a panel, it means that someone believes you are a professional. And being a professional sometimes means doing duties you either don’t want to do or aren’t exactly comfortable doing (like talking in front of an audience.) If you are sick or there’s been an emergency, you can be excused, but notify the convention staff and a few of the other panel members to let them know what’s happened. Your fans will understand you being sick, but they might not forgive you not showing up.
Engage the audience
Now that you know the answers, or think you do, it’s time to wow the audience with your brilliant mind. Not really. If you are spitting out facts and names and facts that are causing the audience’s eyes to glaze over, you are doing paneling wrong. I know it’s kind of terrifying being up there in front of people, and the default brain setting is to stick with safe stuff, but take a look at your audience. If they are nodding and agreeing, go right ahead, but if they look a little lost, ask one of them a question.
Maybe they are in the wrong room. Maybe they are dying to ask you a question that may or may not be related to the topic. By interacting with the audience they have a sense of being a participant not just a listener. And for some, that makes quite an impression and sometimes a fan for life.
Don’t hog the spotlight but don’t try to hide from it either
Panels are timed events. Most of the time they last about 45 minutes but sometimes longer depending on the discussion. That’s not a long time to discuss complicated topics especially when there’s four (or more) people plus a moderator*. While there’s no way to split up the time officially, each panel member needs to be aware of how long they speak.
Some panel members like to talk a lot while others might be more shy. But each person should try to take control of the discussion for a little bit.
Because people are put on panels because they have different experiences, worldviews and ideas. It’s the combination of those that gives audience members a well-rounded experience.
While on the panel, be attentive to the other speakers. Don’t just give your opinion, then sit back and fiddle with your phone. Instead, look at who is speaking. Nod in agreement or raise your hand or get the speaker’s attention when you want to disagree. Participate in what’s going on.
Disagree as few times as possible (unless it’s really important)
Not everyone is going to share the same opinion on every subject or topic. Panels sometimes become sparring matches between two opposing ideas, especially on hot topics. When a point is brought up that you disagree with get the speaker’s or moderator’s attention and state your point but avoid a tennis-match type of discussion.
Except when it’s really important. If someone is saying things that could cause harm to others or is spreading verifiable information, then it’s up to you on how to proceed.
Laud your own work in moderation
While panels are a place to show writing muscles when it comes to certain topics, it’s also a way to promote yourself and your work. While the people in the audience might be interested in your book, they aren’t interested in hearing about it every other sentence.
When you are introduced, point out you have a new book, when it’s available and where. That should be about all of the pimping you should do. Unless of course, you can answer a question by pointing out a segment of your book.
Sometimes it’s best to go with the flow
While many panels run smoothly, sometimes there’s hiccups. You might be a last minute addition to a discussion topic you know nothing about. Or you might have a small audience and want to have a more informal panel. Panel coordinators can get mixed up and leave a room full of devoted fans but no speakers. And sometimes you find an audience member or two who are much more qualified to speak than you are.
In these cases, it’s okay to just go with it if the other panelists agree. Sometimes having a relaxed organic discussion is much better than digging through the few notes you were able to print off the internet.
A Good Audience Member
It goes without saying, if you aren’t on the panel, you are an audience member. Whether you are attending because you are a fan of one of the speakers, are interested in the topic or are curious about something, being a good guest makes the experience pleasant for everyone. Much like being a good panelist, a good audience member needs to remember a few things.
Arrive on time
The first thing everyone needs to do is arrive on time. Whether you are a speaker or an audience member, arriving early helps the panel run smoothly. Arriving early means you can take your seat and get comfortable before the show begins. Plus you might just have a moment to get a word in with your favorite author!
If you do arrive after the panel starts, do so as quietly as possible. Try not to disrupt the discussion.
This goes without saying, be attentive to the discussion. Turn off the ringer on your phone and pay attention. Don’t start a conversation with your neighbor. While not everything on a panel is going to interest you, being respectful and paying attention means a lot to the panel members.
Wait your turn
Many panels have a few minutes for questions from the audience. It’s often difficult to wait your turn when you know the clock is ticking but don’t rush to the head of the line or blurt out your question without being asked to.
After the panel
Often 45 minutes is not long enough to completely discuss a topic. If you or your group would like to continue talking about it, that’s great, but make sure that you clear out the room incase there’s another panel setting up.
If you’d like to speak with one of the panel guests, ask if they have time for a cup of coffee or if you could meet them at another time. But don’t be upset if they simply do not have time. (Remember, the guests are here for business purposes and they may have a full schedule.) If nothing else you can grab a business card and continue your conversation via email.
Being a good panelist and audience member allows everyone to have a good time at conventions. With just a little bit of courtesy, preparation and attentiveness, everyone can have a good time.