HOW TO MODERATE A GREAT PANEL
Relax. Being a good moderator is easy. All you need to do is use a little common sense and avoid a few common mistakes.
Start by understanding your role. Your job as moderator is to help the panelists entertain and inform the audience. This document will help.
1. Do Your Homework. You needn’t have read all the panelists’ books to moderate their panel (although reading the actual books is of course ideal). But if you haven’t read their books, you will need to spend some time on their websites, reading reviews, reading sample chapters, and otherwise getting to know their work so you can ask intelligent questions (even if you have read their books, you should visit their websites. You’re likely to find additional interesting information there). This preparation should take at least several hours. Prepare a list of scintillating questions for your panelists. Here, “scintillating” means questions that are specifically tied to the panelists’ work – questions that are varied, insightful, and provocative (hint: “Where do you get your ideas?” without more is not scintillating. Nor is asking the same question of each panelist four times in a row.) Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need. This way, if one line of questions isn’t working, you can move on to something else.
2. Contact Your Panelists Beforehand. Let your panelists know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them (hint: a lot of those expectations are outlined in this Manifesto). Ask what they would like to talk about (but it’s usually best not to tell them what your specific questions will be beforehand because too much panelist preparation spoils spontaneity). For example: which of their books they think you should read or at least read about? What were some of the best and worst experiences they’ve recently had on panels? What did they like style-wise in the past; what didn’t they like? What do they like and not like about the topic assigned? The panelists’ feedback will give you good ideas, and will also communicate to them that you’re serious about your role and committed to making them look good. If possible, get together before the panel, at least briefly, so everyone can get to know each other a little and the ice gets broken before you’re in front of an audience.
3. Go to Panels. You can’t be a good moderator if you haven’t watched a few good (and bad) ones in action. See how different people moderate. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Improvisation, you’ll see, rarely works. Planning and preparation do.
4. Who Are You? Start by briefly introducing yourself. Just tell the audience the minimum it needs for it to know why you’re moderating this panel. “Hello everyone, welcome to The Bad Guy as Hero. My name is Jane Smith, and I write a thriller series about a contract killer named Joe Killjoy. Killjoy certainly qualifies as a bad guy hero, and that’s why I’m moderating today.”
5. Don’t Do Introductions. Or rather, don’t do them as introductions. Introductions are to moderating what exposition is to novels: necessary information that, if presented straightforwardly, is invariably boring. Instead, weave your introduction into your questions. At the outset, look around to ensure the audience can hear. If at any time you have doubts, ask, “Can everyone hear?” Get your panelists to talk closer to the mike if it’s necessary. It often is. And it might be necessary for you, too. In other words, pay attention to the audience!
6. Depart from Your Script. Realize your script - your prepared questions - is only a guideline. Ideally, your questions will provoke the panelists to riff on each other’s responses. When this happens, you won’t have time to get to all the questions you prepared. Recognize that this is a good thing. Forget the prepared questions and use the material that emerges during the panel to get the panelists to interact. Interject if a panelist is faltering. Fade into the background when the panel is humming along without you. The panel is about the panelists, not about the moderator. That’s why it’s called a panel. Some panelists are Chatty Cathys; others are shrinking violets. Intervene as necessary to ensure the panelists are getting roughly equal airtime. Pay attention to the audience throughout. Learn to look for glazed eyes, stupefied expressions, nodding heads, fidgety bottoms, and bodies heading for the exits. Adjust your approach if the one you’re using isn’t working. If you’ve been blessed with good comic timing, by all means use it. An audience enjoys nothing more than a laugh. But remember to use your wit in the service of the panel. (Hint: if your comedy routine is pre-scripted, it will probably bomb. If you’re riffing on material that arises spontaneously during the course of the panel, you’re probably doing it right.) If you forget that, you won’t be funny, you’ll be foolish.
7. Questions from the Audience. Remember to leave time for questions from the audience. If you’re in a big room, not everyone will hear the questions when they’re asked, so remember to repeat them. If an audience member starts to drone on, politely interrupt and ask him or her to state a question. Don’t be afraid to restate for brevity and clarity. If an audience member asks a question that’s overly specific to a single panelist or otherwise not particularly relevant to the concerns of the wider audience, don’t be afraid to say, “That’s an interesting question, and perhaps better addressed in depth by Panelist A after the wider Q&A we’re doing now.” Warn the audience of these ground rules before you start taking questions and things will go more smoothly. A small thing: when repeating a question, it’s more polite, and sounds more professional, to say, “The question is…” than it is to use a pronoun, such as, “He asked…”. Audience Q&A is important and, when done well, can give the audience a lot of satisfaction. But remember: even during the Q&A, it’s still your job to moderate.
8. Thank the panelists and attendees (and pat yourself on the back for a job well done)!
HOW TO BE A GREAT PANELIST
Here are a few tips for panelists, especially newcomers.
LCLC is about growing a lifelong fan base, so the sales of books are not as important as the number of readers you reach for the long term.
Please do not hard-sell your latest book on a panel—instead sell yourself. If they like you, they may buy your book, or jot it down to buy later. A positive reaction from the audience will cause a social wave of publicity about you on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.
The best way to sell yourself is to be friendly and accessible all weekend long, not just by participating on a panel. As a matter of fact, you’ll probably meet more people outside the panel room than you’ll see at the panel itself.
Not all panels need to be fall down laughing funny – there’s nothing worse than a group of people who aren’t funny, trying to be funny. Go with your strengths. Panels that are serious and informative are just as memorable.
While we are happy with the way we’ve set up the panels, we are open-minded. If the panel wants to go in a different direction, that’s your call.
Please be courteous to your other panelists and remember that you are not up there alone. We strongly suggest that you make yourself familiar with their work before you participate on a panel with them.
Feel free to ask some questions directly to them during a panel.
Do NOT be a panel hog—you do yourself no favors with your fellow writers or fans by gobbling up time.
Pay attention to the moderator, who will be watching to see if the audience’s eyes start to glaze over.
Pay attention to the audience.