Underground Reading: The Fallon Blood by Robert Jordan
Friday Five: 5 Cocktails - Geek Culture in a Glass

(More) Tips for Moderating, Organising and Being on Panels

Powerful Panels' Kristin Arnold has just completed an extensive survey about panels - why they're good, why they're not good, how they can get better. I got to take part (thanks to this thing, I think). It was fun, and, best of all, now the report is back. Ms. Arnold's primary focus is on panels for business purposes, but I thought a lot of the lessons and tips were useful for conventions as well. The full report is here

Ms. Arnold's study turns up scary numbers - basically, folks find panels an even split between "good, meh and crap". Given that panels are still the default for the SF/F convention circuit, that's a little depressing. (And, from my personal experience, we're lucky to have 1/3 of them qualify as 'good'.) 

There are a lot of reasons for why our panels are so bad (conventions aren't 'work', no experience, no training, etc), but more importantly, what can we do to make them better? 

I've pulled out a few of the tips and lessons from the report and added a few thoughts of my own as well. Please, please add your own thoughts, tips and tricks in the comments.

I've also broken this down into three areas: Organisers, Moderators and Panelists. I've left off the audience, but they should behave too.


1. Audio equipment. Make sure it works.

2. Think about the layout of the room. How formal should it be? Can everyone see the panelists? Do you need the big table?

3. No more than 4 people per panel.

4. Brief the moderator. Do they have a clear topic and objective? If not, have you empowered them to come up with one?

5. Select the panel so that the panelists have diverse opinions. Else it gets pretty boring.

6. Ensure the moderator and panelists are introduced and in contact beforehand.

7. Set up a mechanic to take audience questions ahead of time, and provide these to the moderator.

8. Ask yourself: is a panel the best way of engaging the audience and covering the topic? Could this be a workshop? A debate? A game?

9. Make it clear if the panel is (or should be) appropriate for children. 

10. Give the moderator everything they need to know about time and place (show up at x, y minutes early) and any announcements they need to make. 


1. Do your homework. Know who your panelists are, what they've done and why they're relevant to the panel. 

2. It isn't about you. You are the facilitator, you are there to get the best out of everyone else.

3. Have a clear topic. Make sure the organisers, panelists and audience are all aware of what it is.

4. Have questions prepared in advance.

5. ...Short questions. (Else nervous panelists will forget what you're asking by the time you get to the question mark.)

6. ...Open-ended questions ('how' and 'why' questions, not questions that get you 'yes/no' answers)...

7. Be prepared to let the discussion go on without you. You want the panelists to engage in conversation with one another. If they're doing that, step back. 

8. ... but keep the panel on-topic. It is nice that they're getting along, but if they go meandering off, bring them back in line.

9. Keep your panelists are going on too long, you have the right to rope them in. (This is not a matter of your personal opinion though - watch the audience for cues.)

10. Engage the audience early - possibly even in advance (see tip above, about getting questions early through Twitter, etc.)

11. Engage the audience in other ways as well - take votes, get hands raised, cheer, etc. 

12. Speak slowly and clearly.

13. Be in touch with your panelists beforehand. Make sure you know how they like to be introduced. Make sure they know what will be expected of them. Get them thinking about the topic and the objective. Set the ground rules if there's something uncomfortable or inappropriate.

14. Support your panelists, and make sure they feel appreciated. Introduce them warmly, mention their books/work in their introduction, and be sure to thank them at the close of the panel. 

15. Don't self-promote.  

For panelists: 

1. Do your homework. Know who the other panelists are. Do the reading.

2. Have an informed opinion on the topic and the objective. 

3. Be succinct. 

4. Don't self-promote. The moderator will introduce your book or your work. You won't sell your book by mentioning it every fifteen seconds. You will by being engaging and interesting.

5. Listen to the other panelists. Share the time.

6. Talk to the other panelists and to the audience. It isn't a conversation between you and the moderator. 

7. Have fun and relax. And the audience will follow suit.

8. ...but be professional. Don't be rude to the other panelists, moderator, organisers or audience.  

What other hints, tips and rules do you have? Please share in the comments!

And, again, a huge thanks to Kristin Arnold for her survey, research and insight. Please check out her work at Powerfulpanels.com.