All in the Moderation

The moderator can make or break a panel at a convention.

We creators tend to get off the rails a bit when we’re excited and talking about the craft, or our favorite fandoms, or lets be honest, anything that interests us in any way. While it might be fun for us to sit behind the big kids table and play off of each other, it’s a lot less fun for the audience. They came to hear about a specific issue of the craft, not the tangent that is too easy to get off on. It’s the moderator’s job to rope in the speakers and keep the whole thing on track. And it’s a lot like herding cats in a room full of string, mice, and dogs.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended my first convention as a professional. Over the course of those three days, I had eleven hours of programming (which is a freaking ton, but a topic or another post). I was moderating one of those panels, and oh man did that one give me the most anxiety. Not only because I’d never moderated before, but because not one, but TWO of my editors were on it. So I knew I had to bring my A game.

A tendency a lot of people have when they moderate is to ask a question, then go down the line and have each panelist answer it. This can work if you have radically diverse panelists who all will have original takes on the subject matter. But such broad diversity is rare. Generally your panelists all have quite a bit in common, and by about the third person in line, you’ve run out of originality in the answers you’re giving. To me, this is lazy on the moderator’s part because you’re either getting redundant answers from your panelists, or making your panelists work way harder than necessary to come up with something different to say.

This method can also lead to your panelists going off on tangents, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. When you get to the fifth in the line, they’re reaching for something interesting to say can make them go with something only marginally related to the question. Paradoxically, it can kill a lot of discussion regarding the subject. I know, I know. Aren’t we trying to avoid too much talking outside the questions? Yes and no. You don’t want unrelated discussions, but discussions that are confined to the question and topic are perfectly fine. In fact, some of the best insights come from these discussions. It’s all about control. You want to keep your panelists on subject, and you want the panel to be a discussion rather than just a Q&A.

So how do you do that? Well, the first step is to know your panelists. If you’re like me, then you’ve been going to panels for years, and you’ll hopefully know a good chunk of the attendees. If not, well that’s the benefit of having the schedule well in advance. You’ll know who is sitting on the panels you’re moderating. And if the Con you’re attending doesn’t give a schedule that includes the other panelists, reach out to them. No Con is going to want their moderators unprepared. Once you know who is on your panels, do a bit of research. What do they write? Do they edit as well? What made the Con Com decide to put them on this panel?

Once you know your panelists, it’s time to write your questions. Try to tailor your questions to a specific person. Or just a couple. A good example from my Crutch Words panel. Three of my panelists were editors, and two of them were just writers. So I asked my editors what common crutch words they saw among writers they edited. Then I asked the writers how many of their crutch words were teased out by their editors. Similar questions, but it was targeted to just a few to make sure that we didn’t run out of original answers. And it sparked the discussion with those I didn’t include in the target of the question. The others won’t speak up unless they have something new to add to the conversation.

The other thing you’ve got to do is to know when a discussion is on the verge of running away. When we start repeating the same points, it’s time for the next question. This is where a lot of us introverts have a problem. We don’t like to speak up to drive everyone towards the next topic. But here’s a secret. Unless you just have a group of crap panelists, everyone at that table is aware of how discussions can get off course. And they’re going to respect the moderator when they speak up to ask the next question. Don’t be afraid. Just get in there.

One of the biggest objections I hear as well is that moderating means you don’t get to join the discussion. To which I say, why not? You’re just as qualified to talk about the topic of the panel as everyone else. In fact, you might be the most qualified, which is why you were asked to do it. So throw in your two cents as well. In fact, joining the discussion is a good way to take control of the conversation and segue into the next question.

This all sounds a lot harder than it is. It’s all about tempo. Generally I prepare about seven or so questions, and expect to only get through about five of them at most. I’ll allow up to ten minutes for a discussion on the current question, as long as it’s staying relevant, before I move everyone on to the next. And most importantly, I make sure that I’ve given everyone equal chances to answer questions. That means that if we had no discussion outside of the targets of my questions, everyone will answer the same amount. About ten to fifteen minutes before the end of the panel, open it up to audience questions, and at the tail end give your panelists a chance to tell the audience where they can find them.

Easy peasy. Even better, being a good moderator means that it’s fun to be on your panels for both the audience and the panelists. Cons are always looking for moderators, and they’ll be thankful to have someone who is both willing to do it, and good at it. Con runners talk, and being a good moderator can net you more Con acceptances, as well as more panels at cons.

So lets open it up to the audience. Got any questions? Or perhaps some tips on what makes a good moderator? Maybe you’ve been on a panel with someone with a unique moderation style that was just amazing, tell us about it!

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