How to Be a Panelist

Went to Apollocon this weekend.  Great time, as usual.  Fun folks, pleasant environment, and a chance to connect with fans and friends.  Bought a Transformers: Animated Grimlock and Blitzwing figure, and just had a solid weekend.

One of the things I do (as a semi-famous novelologist) is sit on panels.  It’s always a weird thing to me that this is something people want to see, but they do.  I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m no slouch in the panelist department.  Now, since most of you reading this probably aren’t supergroovy sci fi fantasy writers, you probably won’t be on many panels in your life.  But then again, maybe you will.  Life is funny that way.  All I know is that being an entertaining and engaging panelist is a tricky proposition.  In that spirit, I’d like to offer a little A. Lee Martinez brand insight, should you ever find yourself in the position of sitting behind a table, trading witty banter and thoughtful insights with other people behind that table while people on the other side of that table gaze on in starstruck delight.

RULE 1: KEEP ON TOPIC:  This rather obvious rule gets broken all the time.  You’d be surprised how often a panel about robots veers off into a detailed discussion about Twilight.  Really, it happens.  There’s nothing wrong with a conversational diversion, but if it goes on too long, then it can become a problem.  Most panels will have a moderator, but not every moderator has the chutzpah to keep the panelists under control.  So as a panelist, try your best to stay on topic.

Staying on topic isn’t always obvious.  If you’re on a panel about Marvel Comics, it’s inevitable that someone will bring up DC because comparisons are relevant and important.  But, at the end of the day, if the panel isn’t about DC, you have to be sure to return to Marvel.  As much as you might like to rant about your particular pet peeve in the comic related field, if it’s not about Marvel, then you have to watch yourself.

 RULE 2: BE ACCESSIBLE:  Here’s the thing.  You might know everything there is to know about the most obscure works of Shakespeare or Arthur C. Clarke.  You might be able to reference a nearly forgotten sci fi novel from the 12th century.  You might have studied the art of origami and the culture of the samurai with an almost Batman-like degree of attention to detail.  But at the end of the day, most people aren’t going to give a damn.

Oh, some will.  If the audience is big enough, you can always catch a few people, but the object of a panel discussion is to engage the entire audience.  Or as much of the audience as you can.  This means that you should keep your observations general, your references accessible.  If you can make the same point by talking about Avatar as you could citing a forgotten translation of Beowulf, go with Avatar.  It might not be as intellectual, but it’ll have a better chance of grabbing the greatest portion of the audience.

RULE 3: IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU:  Well, sometimes, it is.  Some panels are specifically geared toward a particular speaker.  If I’m ever on an The Incredible Genius of A. Lee Martinez panel, you can be assured that I will talk about myself.  But otherwise, I’ll try to limit the mentions of my astounding life and times to only one or two times at most.

It’s tempting, human even, to have your ego get a little ahead of you when you’re sitting on a panel.  There you are.  You!  And people are sitting down with wide eyed wonder to hear what you have to say.  Obviously, you’re pretty damn important.  Everything you say must be relevant and wonderful, and if you want to talk about what you had for breakfast and that one cross country trip you took across Europe, that’s gotta be worth hearing, right?

Could be, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

STEP 4: BE ENGAGING:  This should seem obvious, but I’m going to go ahead and spell it out.  The audience is there to like you.  Don’t make it hard on them by frowning, mumbling, or otherwise acting like you don’t want to be there.  Speak up.  Smile.  Laugh where applicable.  Make eye contact.  I usually pick one or two people in the audience to look at when I speak.  It helps to have a focus.

The audience is excited to see you.  You should return the favor.  Or at least do your best to fake it.

RULE 5: BE POLITE:  If you’re on a panel with other people, remember this:  You’re on a panel with other people.  That means it’s important to shut up every so often and allow these other folks to speak.  I know.  They’re not nearly as intelligent, articulate, or all around awesome as you are, but that’s not their fault.  They still have something to offer.  Plus, dominating a panel might make you feel important, but it’ll also annoy other people, including your fellow panelists and much of your audience.

The extension of rule five is to do the moderator a favor and moderate yourself as much as possible.  If you catch yourself talking too long, be quiet.  If you notice another panelist not getting a chance to talk, try to give them an opening to do so.  Don’t assume that the moderator will keep you in check because not all moderators are created equal.  Most don’t want to be the bad guy.  And if you happen to be in a position of respect, they’ll probably be reluctant to cut you off.

RULE 6:  BE APPROPRIATE:  Consider your audience.  Consider the situation.  If you swear like a sailor in your everyday life, consider not doing it, if only for an hour.  If you love to make lewd remarks and sexual innuendo, maybe this isn’t the proper venue for that.  When in doubt, just don’t do it.  Err on the side of caution.

You have to be aware of yourself and your behavior in a way that you normally aren’t.  That’s not always easy, but it’s vital.  Remember that while you’re up there, acting like a VIP, that you don’t have the luxury of being unlikable.  Even if you’re willing to take the heat for that, you’re up there as a representative of the convention (or whatever).  If they were nice enough to invite you, you should do your best to reflect well on thiem.  You certainly shouldn’t be offensive if you can help it.  There’s little doubt, you’ll slip up.  You’re human.  But keep the slip ups to a minimum.

As an aside, there are some panels where vulgarity and R-rated language is perfectly acceptable, but when in doubt, don’t say it.

RULE 7: DON’T BE AFRAID TO SPEAK UP:  A panel where everyone parrots the same opinion is boring, and a boring panel doesn’t do anyone any good.  It’s okay to voice a contrary opinion and a conflicting thought now and then.  You should be polite about it, but a good debate is appreciated by all.  It keeps things lively.  Just remember that it’s not about right and wrong, but about an interesting conversation.  Don’t get insulting.  If you do end up being insulting, even by accident, apologize.  (And if you do end up being insulted, don’t be obnoxious about it.)  On the panel, in front of everyone, if the offense warrants it.  Or after the panel, in private, if you must.

Finally, RULE 8: STICK AROUND:  If you have the chance after the panel is over, stick around.  Talk to a few people.  It’s well worth your time, and they will appreciate it more than you know.  Trust me on this.

So there you have it.  Panelist rules to live by.  Learn ’em.  Remember ’em.  Live ’em.  You’ll be glad you did.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Sean
    Posted June 28, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Excellent list. I think I’ll be forwarding to my sis-in-law who runs programming at a local Steampunk convention. Maybe she can send the link out to her pannelists. Although she certainly lives by these rules for choosing her pannelists so hopefully she doesn’t need it too often.

  2. Posted June 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Having seen a few panels, these tips are right on. And I’ve been stewing over this topic in general, anyway.

    Yesterday, I read an article about the evolution of cons. Some cons used to be about Sci Fi and Fantasy topics and are becoming increasingly more about the fan lifestyle. Panels at these kinds of cons become more about the fans navel gazing and opining than anything else.

    And if that’s what people are looking for, no prob, more power to them.

    But when lifestyle topics (“Flirting,” “Your Kink is OK,” and “How to Build a Better Hoopskirt,” etc.) start to dominate a con, I’m less interested. I like cons for the opportunity to hang with friends, but I also appreciate listening to special guests and hearing the insider scoop of Sci Fi and fantasy. For me, the best cons are those with notable guests and a cool lineup of vendors, publishers, etc.

    For example, when I go to a library convention, I want to see some good library programming, not a bunch of panels on how to style a bun or select the best horned rimmed glasses. Same thing with other cons. When I hit a Sci Fi con, I want Sci Fi. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

    And of course, I want to see novelologists and get cool buttons.

  3. Rippley
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I wish Literary panels were more battle royal. All out war.

    I don’t want to see Daniel Handler silent as Jane Smiley at LitQuake waxes about the history of some famous author she could never compare to. Shut-up Jane! The panelists should be willing to attack each other at any moment. I want wit and dismemberment. I want to see Charlaine Harris gore Stephenie Meyer on a stake with the words, “And this was the short second life of that one-dimensional crap you put out.” Because who the hell wants to watch you folks roll your eyes and be nice to each other–it’s boring. Give me more Hunter S. Thompson and less J.K Rowling.

  4. Mario
    Posted June 29, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only been doing panels for about 5 years (and moderating for about 4 of them) at smaller cons, and I pretty much agree with all of this.

    I tend to be a fairly loose moderator, because I like freeflow discussion, but I do have a basic structure.

    0: Prepare in advance. It helps more than you might think to have a list of “seed questions” to bring up when you hit a lull.

    1: Sit where you can see as much of the panel, and the room, as possible. For me, it’s usually at the end of the table.

    2: Start by having each panelist introduce themselves, and answer an introductory question related to the topic.

    3. Let the audience ask questions. If they aren’t throw out a seed question.

    4. Keep things moving. People get tired of holding their hands up after a while.

    5. End with each panelists summation.

    6. Thank the crowd. It helps.

    Not a perfect system, but it’s worked so far.

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