SFX Weekender 3: The Morning After
PK Interview: Lawrence Block

10 Tips for Moderating a Panel

The SFX Weekender saw me moderating an SF convention panel for the first time. With that in mind, this list is presented not as my own attempts at sage wisdom, but as good advice belatedly gathered from the real experts (most of which I didn't learn in time, dernit).

Please add your own tips & tricks in the comments below. 

Joe Abercrombie explains where the final parantheses went. (Picture courtesy of Jon Green.)

1. The audience is not there to listen to you. The key part of being the moderator is that you moderate - you stand outside the panel, not on it. Granted, sometimes this is a crying shame: the moderator generally may be (and often is) an acknowledged expert in the subject area. It still doesn't matter. Your role is to make it all about the other members of the panel: they're the guests. 

2. When you go over to audience questions, you can answer them. (Last.) You're still moderating, in that you need to make sure that the rest of the panel answers as well, but, since the questions aren't coming from you, you can chime in. But do so at the end. If someone from the crowd asks a question and you answer it first, you're putting yourself before the panel again. (We had a bit of a disagreement on this one - with some folks saying you shouldn't answer them under any circumstances.)

3. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak. This should take part in two stages. At the beginning, you'll need to ask questions of everyone on the panel. If you ask a common question, "What is your favorite jam?", make sure that everyone answers it. If you're asking a targeted question, "Richard Morgan, why is there blackberry jam in your book?" make sure that you have the same level of question for everyone else on your panel, "Steph Swainston, why did you did choose strawberry instead?".

Eventually - ideally - the conversation will start to flow on its own and the panelists won't be coming back to you. When that happens, your role is to make sure that no one is excluded. If someone is being talked over, looks lost or is just retreating, rope them back in.

4. Get it away from you. Following on from the above, the early stages of the panel will take the form of conversational ping-pong (you-panelist, you-panelist, you-panelist) or a game of hot potato (you-panelist-panelist-panelist-panelist, you-panelist-panelist-etc.). It is important to get the panelists talking to one another, not to you.

There are a couple cheaty ways to do this: one is to not look at them. The panelist's natural urge will be to respond to the person that asked them a question, so they'll look to you. If you look out into the crowd, they'll do the same. The other trick is through a bit of judicious silence. We all abhor a conversational vacuum. If a panelist stops talking and you don't pick up the baton, someone will step in. The trick is, of course, not to let it go too long.

5. Read their body language. You can tell a lot about how your panel is doing by their body language. If someone is nodding or shaking their head, bounce the follow-up question to them. If someone looks glazed over, get them in on a new topic. If someone is hiding, make sure they're involved. You'll see how the audience is responding, but keep in mind that you aren't moderating them and don't have the same level of control. The crowd will react to how your panel is doing. If your panelists are energetic, fun and involved, your audience will respond.

6. Moderation isn't anarchy. The downside of #4, above, is that if it works, your panelists may just dissolve into undirected conversation. That might be fun, but you're still not doing your job. Your panel has a topic, probably even phrased as a question. You should have some idea of what a logical progression should be towards achieving an answer. For example, "role of jam", "role of food", "why food in fantasy at all?", "realism in the fantastic". If your panel is stuck wheeling around breakfast spreads for ages, you need to bump them to the next level.

7. Introduce the panelists. Another bit of dissension. I prefer it when the moderator introduces the panelists. To me, they're the guests, so that's just good etiquette. Also, it allows you to focus on what's important or relevant to the topic at hand, and keep control of the clock. Richard Morgan may have written a dozen books, but only two of them are relevant to jam. Others disagree. The intro allows the author to loosen up and connect with the crowd, plus, as it is about them, saying "hi" is a chance for them to kick off the topic in their own way. 

8. Do your research. We've all seen some horror shows when it comes to ill-researched moderators. (My favorite was when, on an awards-related panel, a moderator didn't realise that one of the panelists was on that year's shortlist.) You don't need to know everything about a panelist's life - your panel isn't going to be that far-ranging. But you need to have some idea of their basic contributions on the topic. If you don't, you'll start cheating your questions towards the panelists with whom you feel more comfortable. 

9. Ask open questions. An open question is anything "how", "why", "what", etc. Essay questions. A closed question is an "Is..." or a "Do you...", anything with a yes/no answer. They're true/false statements or multiple choice. Open questions give more freedom to the respondent and take longer than .75 seconds to answer. "How do you use jam in your novels?" will get more interesting responses than "Do you use jam in your novels?". ("Yes.)

This connects back to point #1. A lot of moderators slip into closed questions because they're still talking about themselves. "Ever since Tolkien's hobbits made a big deal of stealing mushrooms, I think that fantasy breakfasts have always erred towards the savoury. Don't you?". 

("What do you think?" is an open question, but it is also a cry for help. It means that you've just held court about what you think and are now desperately punting the ball downfield in the hopes of getting someone else involved. )

10. Have fun. It is an hour (or 45 minutes), not the end of the world. Panels go "horribly wrong", but let's keep some perspective about what that entails (e.g. "boring" not "devoured by wolves"). If you're having a good time, your guests will have a good time and everyone in the crowd will have a good time. Everyone out there is on your side, wanting you to succeed. Keep positive, and they will too.

10a. Get the basic stuff in place. This isn't really part of the tips, because the mechanics are the easy part. But they're still important. Get there early. Make sure your guests are there. Have water. Know what the announcements are. Know where the mic is. Etc. Etc. It isn't you against the technical folks or organisers, either. Blaming them for problems is tacky. In case you've missed the first 10 points, for 45 minutes you're the staff, not the star.


So, that's what I've learned - and we'll see if any of them stick. What made your favorite panels successful (or unsuccessful)? What advice do you have to future moderators?