What Writers Should Know About Panels At Cons & Conferences

You’re a writer, so maybe you go to conventions and conferences.

Winter has relinquished its icy grip. The Day God has grown angry, which means the year has yielded to summer. And that means it is now con season.

Which means you will, at a con, either:

a) go to a panel

or

b) be on a panel.

Which leads to the question of, what makes good panel etiquette?

As always, this means I have thinky juice. If it is a topic — really, any topic will do, from breeding bears to drinking beers to bedazzling beards (aka “beard-azzling”) — then I will have thoughts because I am deluded enough to believe that my opinion matters. (Spoiler alert: it don’t).

So: let’s talk about panels and the things you might wanna know.

1. You Are Not A Walking Talking Advertisement

Some writers will go to panels, and they will set up what looks like some kind of storefront, some library-shaped battlement. They will place their books all around them. They will put up signs and business cards and pull the little clicky-cord on a neon sign behind them. And then they will proceed, during the answer to every question, to say things like WELL IN MY BOOK even when it is woefully irrelevant to the query queried.

Listen: you are an advertisement for your book. Not all that extra fiddly marketing shit. Not the castle of books you built around you. Not the mobile of postcards or the pinata shaped like your protagonist or the ventriloquist dummy who interrupts every other speaker to say BUY MY BOOK.

Just say cool stuff. Be honest, earnest, helpful, funny if you can manage it. As with social media, be the very best version of yourself. Talk about your book, in brief, when it is relevant.

You are not a Spam-Bot that uploaded itself to reality out of the Matrix.

2. Panels Do Sell Books

If you’re an author: being funny, engaging or informative on a panel can sell books. I’ve done it. I’ve seen others do it. People walk up, and having been unfamiliar with you, they say: “I liked you on your panel, ‘Gender Memetics and Gun Control in Sword & Sorcery Fiction,'” and then you chat with them and they buy your book. It’s amazing. They don’t buy it because you threw your book at their faces during the panel. “My answer to that question is –“

*throws book-shaped fastball into audience member’s face, breaking their nose*

If you’re an audience member: hey, when you go to a panel, and you dig what some of the authors are saying, at least consider buying a book. It’s not a requirement. It’s not the price of admission. But maybe kinda sorta pleeeeaaaase consider it? That is, in part, what we as authors are hoping you’ll do. If we can’t sell books, we can’t go to cons in the first place.

3. Equal Time, Motherfuckers

Do not dominate the proceedings.

I know. You have shit to say. This is your time to shine, you crazy diamond.

It is. It really is. They’ve passed you the mic. The audience is captive. Maybe you’re on the panel. Maybe you’re asking a question from the audience. But please, let me caution you:

Keep it brief.

Not so brief you stammer out some blurted burp of information:

URBAN FANTASY AHHH LOS ANGELES INTERSTITIAL UHH I THINK EPIC FANTASY IS ROTHFUSS *flings sweat-slick microphone to the next author*

But brief enough so that you get to the point and execute on the question at hand.

Translation: don’t make it all about you.

A panel is, what, maybe 50 minutes? The river needs to move. It can’t get dammed up with too much garbage. Make a case. Present information. Move on. Let all the authors speak. If you blather on for 17 minutes about “reverse worldbuilding in the splatterpunk genre,” then the moderator might just move onto the next question.

A good moderator will skip your chatty ass next time, hoss.

It’s up to you to watch the clock. Set your phone in front of you, run a stopwatch display.

4. The Celebrity Effect

Sometimes a panel will have what you might think of as a “heavy-hitter.” Some major bestselling author like Patrick Scalzi or Seanan Patrick Hearnethfuss, and you need to recognize that a lot of the people in the audience are there to see the heavy-hitting bestselling author. They just are.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Usually.

If you’re on a panel with an author of such Deep-Seated Bad-Assery, that’s an opportunity to talk to that author’s audience for a minute. They get to share that with you, and you get to share stuff with that audience. It’s a nice coming together moment, and also means you might be speaking to a larger audience than you might normally rate.

I have heard horror stories where the Celebrity Author is aware of his own status and proceeds to do exactly what I told you not to do, which is Dominate The Proceedings. Thankfully, I’ve yet to experience this, but, seriously, I’ve heard tales. Horror stories. It is what it is, I guess.

5. The Fine Art Of Moderating

Moderators: this is an important job. I know — you’re not being paid for this gig, I get it. You’re a volunteer. I am sympathetic. But about… at least 25% of the moderators I see are not precisely ideal, and a kick-ass moderator is the key to a kick-ass panel. You’re equal parts carnival barker and pitch-man and fight ref. You need to steer the discussion. You need to give equal time to participants. You need to be amusing all your own and know how to ask the questions the audience wants to hear. You are a juggler-of-chainsaws. I don’t envy your role, but you were given the wheel just the same: don’t steer us off the cliff, kay?

Speak up. Move the discussion along. Visit with all the speakers.

And, Cardinal Sin time? Do not take up more time than the panelists by answering your own questions. I’ve watched panels like this. I sat on one, once. Ugh. The moderator has a book — or just has feelings — and asks questions only to answer them himself, first or last, taking up scads of time away from the panelists. No, no, no, ew, no.

It’d be like watching a referee suddenly jump in the game to score a goal unit with the ball.

Stop that.

Just… stop it.

(One of my favorite moderators ever: Patrick Hester. He of SFSignal and Functional Nerds. He of the Scrivener Wisdom. Great dude. Amazing moderator, aware of his role at every moment.)

6. The Diversity Tango

A lot of panels end up being a bunch of dudes. White dudes. And, hey, that’s fine, as long as the panel is called “WHAT STRAIGHT WHITE DUDES THINK ABOUT MILITARY SCI-FI,” but if it’s not, then that’s a smoldering hunk of buffalo dooky. The best are when panels about diversity are completely non-diverse (“HEY PANEL OF WHITE GENTLEMEN, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT LADIES AND POC IN FICTION? YOUR OPINIONS ON THIS SUBJECT ARE VITAL”).

It is your job, as audience and authors, to look at the panel composition beforehand and contact the cons/conferences to demand they do better. And the cons may respond with some fol-de-rol about how there aren’t any women who write this genre or any people-of-color who write that genre, and then your job is to write them with a list of names who do.

Listen, stuff like this is hard, but it’s important. We have to get a little agitated, a little angry, to make changes in this space. Change is happening, but it requires action.

As the government says in order to make us more paranoid:

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING

SAY SOMETHING

7. A Note To Dudes

Sometimes, I have noticed an effect where men at panels talk over the women at panels.

It’s like they’re just waiting for them ladies to shut up so they can get to their point.

Don’t do this.

I mean, nobody should do this to anybody, but it seems of particular prevalence in this direction.

Oh, and if you sexually harass someone during that panel, you should be Tasered. (I mean, obviously, don’t sexually harass anyone anywhere, but on a panel? Really? Ugh.)

8. How To Be In The Audience And Ask Questions

If your goal as an audience member is to get up to the mic and then say:

“My opinion about Victorian dragons is that –“

*15 minute diatribe ensues*

You’re a bad audience member.

*swats you with phone book*

Stop that. Your job is to ask questions.

You are not a panelist.

I know. It’s hard. YOU HAVE OPINIONS. Now is not the time. People paid to be here. They are sitting in the audience waiting to hear the wisdom — sometimes, “wisdom” — of the gathered participants. You are not a participant. If you didn’t show up, you know what would happen? Literally nothing. They’d still open the doors. No one would say, “Hey, where’s Dave, that guy who wants to bore us with his lecture about steampunk appetizers?”

9. Self-Publishing Isn’t Usually Represented

Usually, the only time you’ll see a strong author-publisher presence is when it’s a panel on self-publishing. This is both a shame and somewhat understandable. 

It’s a shame because, hey, lots of great self-publishers out there. They have lots of vital things to say about their experiences. Excluding them means to exclude their POV.

It’s understandable because the rotten apples in the self-publishing bushel have made it hard to include those authors, even the good ones, because of the sheer weight of self-published shit-slurry that gets flung through the door once you open it. By which I mean, once you open to self-published authors, you will be besieged by them. And often not the good ones. Anybody who published any dungbucket on their own suddenly wants to sit on every panel, and given that cons and conferences are often volunteer-run — it’s just too much. (Being a hybrid author is usually a good way to end-run around such wariness and forbiddance.)

10. “I Don’t Know” Is A Perfectly Valid Response

You don’t have to answer a question.

No, really.

If you aren’t prepared to answer it — it’s okay to shrug and be all like, “Man, I have no idea.” It’s doubly okay to then pass the mic to someone else who you feel is more qualified. “I think Anastasia Smock would have a better answer since she wrote about incontinent pirates in the third book of the Scumbeard Cycle, THE WEE-WEE SEA.” Equal time matters, but also deferring to experts and not filling up space with hot breathy irrelevance has value, too.

11. Communicate With Panelists And Moderators Early

If given a chance, chat with the panelists beforehand — maybe even over email a week or two before the event — just to get comfortable with folks. Moderator, too — it’s better to talk about the panel long in advance rather than, like, 30 seconds before: “DON’T ASK ME ABOUT TOPICS RELATED TO BIRTH CONTROL, PONIES, LIGHTNING STORMS, ACAI JUICE, ABORTION, TERMINATORS, AND INCONTINENT PIRATES.”

12. Get To Your Panels A Little Early

Don’t be that sloppy fool who comes in like, ten minutes after everything has begun, making a racket, eating a sandwich noisily. This is true of authors and audience members. Come in. Sit down. Panel starts when the panel starts.

13. Project Your Voice

You won’t always have a microphone. Make yourself heard. Speak with confidence —

Or, at least, clarity.

People came to hear you and the others.

They didn’t pay to watch you stare at your hands and mumble.

14. Pay Attention

Don’t be fucking around with Flappy Bird on your phone while others are talking. Listen. Respond. Ask questions of your own. This is a dialogue, not a “tune out until it’s your turn to speak” event.

15. My Favorite Thing About Panels…

… is when the moderator is no longer necessary. No harm no foul against the moderator, but the coolest moment in a panel (and more rare than you might prefer) is when all the participants evolve the straight-up Q&A into an outright discussion. Folks ping-ponging back and forth in conversation rather than reading rote-feeling responses one after the other?

That is priceless, and what all panels should aspire to, in my humble, worthless opinion.

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48 comments

  • It’s con season, he thought, looking around. A whole new crop of rubes, ripe for the fleecing.

    Oh, sorry. WRONG CON.

  • Having been on (and moderated) many panels over the years, boy do I agree and wish all convention participants would read this before attending. Especially the one about constantly spamming your latest book and using the panel as a commercial for your work. That’s the one I see abused most often (or maybe it’s just the one that bugs me the most.)

  • July 1, 2014 at 11:40 AM // Reply

    I don’t like panels at conferences. I think it is a really inefficient way to impart information. Usually, there are four or five experts. The moderator asks a question. They each answer. Maybe two or three more questions are asked and answered. Compare this to a classroom type setting: one instructor and a group of eager students. Lots and lots of information gets presented. Much more efficient.

  • On the subject of point 6, wearing my conrunners hat – yes please DO approach us with lists of brilliant and diverse people who might be good on panels – we want to hear those names!

  • About no. 8, how to be in the audience: after panels, authors don’t magically disappear, so you can sometimes share your opinion with them then.

    The author might have some panel (or meal or drink or nap or shower) to get to; and they may be besieged by jerks from the audience (oh no, you’re not the jerk, it’s other people doing the same thing as you who are jerks); but there’s often some time later to talk. Especially if your comment is really directed at only one of the authors there.

    Which brings up the next point about being an audience member asking a question: it’s often better to write a question that is answerable by more than one panelist. IMHO

  • Yeah, what you said. I’d add that it’s also the moderator’s responsibility to control the audience too. I’ve seen that go sideways quick without proper steering (especially as one who is constantly on Writing Strong Women in Sexist SFF Feminism Isn’t a Naughty Word Don’t be Rapey Panels)

  • It’s a balancing act between trying to impart real information in bite-sized chunks understanding that only a tenth of what you think on the subject can be covered in your one-fifth (or at larger cons, one-tenth) of the allotted response time and trying to be witty and just saying “find me in the bar later, I’ll actually talk about this in depth over drinks.” But there are a couple of key points here, so let’s crystallize –

    1) People buy shit from people they like. I’ve sold a lot more books by being mildly amusing on panels than I can ever hope to sell by being brilliant. Probably because I’m not brilliant, but most days can manage “mildly amusing.”

    2) People hate to be sold. If you sound like a pitchman, you’re going to have Herb Tarlick results. If you’re too young to know who that is, Google it.

    3) Be the least famous person on the panel, it’s a great career move. It also means you don’t have to be the smartest.

    4) If you’re in the audience, please remember that you’re not on the panel, and the other audience members are there to listen to the people at the table. Sorry, that’s the deal.

    5) If you can write brilliantly but can’t speak in public, go to your local community college and take Acting 101. It won’t kill you and will help your sales.

    6) If you’re a self-pubbed author, unbunch your drawers about Chuck’s self-pubbed point and check the twitter feeds of your brethren and sistren. I self-pub and am frequently appalled at the behavior or other self-published authors in person and on the internet. You seem desperate. Quit it. Be a fucking professional and quit groveling for attention.

    7) You want a place at the table? Go to the tiny cons and earn it. Be amazing at cons with five people in the room and you’ll earn your way to the panels with 800 people in the room. I know of what I speak, it’s what I did. My first con was in a Holiday Inn Express in Columbia, SC with five people in the writers’ panels, and six panelists. I did my best, made friends, and wasn’t an asshole. Last year I made it onto a Dragon*Con panel where they were turning people away at the door five minutes before the panel started. I got there by working hard and behaving myself (after a fashion) on panels. Don’t be a douchenozzle and you can do the same thing.

    8) I’ll be in the bar. Come hang out, I’ll tell you all my secrets. And we’ll be in the bar, which is always a plus. But seriously, eat meals and hang in the bar with people you want to get to know.

  • Also be prepared, or at least somewhat prepared. If you were just thrown on a panel at the last minute, don’t advertise it. If you don’t like the panel, don’t advertise it. I went to one poorly organized con. Said panelist strode in and announced to the audience he didn’t know what the panel was. Then he sat down and sketched the entire time.

    Please don’t treat audience members like they’re stupid. I asked a question related to the panel discussion (on writing) and got treated by one panelist like I was stupid because I wasn’t doing it right, according to her. That’s a great way for me to never buy your books.

  • 1. Patrick Hester IS rather fabulous, isn’t he?

    2. Would that all conference/convention organizers would read this post as well.

    3. Interstitial pirates are rarely incontinent.

    4. If you have any quirks (like Chuck and his damn tiara demands) or special needs, let whoever booked you for the conference know about them ahead of time. It’s their job to disseminate (yes, I said it) such info to the moderators.

  • My two rules for being on panels:
    1) BE FUNNY
    I accomplish this with copious amounts of creative cursing. I am usually the first one to drop an F-bomb in a panel. (I’m James R. Tuck. I write the Deacon Chalk series. I fucking curse on panels.)

    2) IF YOU CAN’T BE FUNNY THEN FOR FUCK SAKE BE BRIEF.
    A panel is an ensemble cast, Make your point and move on.

    And the sidenote: If you are assigned to moderate a panel because no moderator is available then MODERATE. You are no longer a guest, do your job and people will still notice you. I promise.

  • As a con runner, I get plagued by self-published people wanting to be on programming. Don’t beg. Don’t seek out an invitation. It really annoys people. Come to the convention as a member and meet the people who run the convention. Ask them what it would take to be on programming next year and how you should contact them. People are more likely to give you a shot if they have met you and or read their book. I once had someone share a link with me that allowed me to download the book free of charge so I could get a feel of their writing.

    Also, and this one kills me, DO NOT EAT DURING a panel wether you are a panelist or audience member. I once sat near a guy in the audience who ate a four course breakfast during a panel. It was quite possibly the rudest thing I have ever seen at a panel. If you can’t wait an hour to eat, then don’t attend.

    Panelists should not be drunk or stoned. Been on those too. Very unprofessional and rude to your fellow panelists.

  • Attended my first con last year. Saw all of this behaviour, both the good, but most memorably, the bad. Your post should be in the kits they send out.

  • I loved doing panes at Worldcon 7 in Chicago. During the Sci-Fi Novelettes panel I found myself sitting alongside Hugo and Nebula-award winning authors. I was the only self-pubbed, and found myself talking about the platform’s potential for the novelette story structure. It was a weird mixture of not wanting to talk to much, feeling like a mouse among giants, and having to field all the self-pub related questions because I was the only one doing it.

  • Regarding point #1:

    I attended a panel at LACon IV, the WorldCon in LA in 200…6? I don’t remember the topic, but the panelists were Tim Powers and two other random people (who I also don’t remember, even if I did want to shame them). Both of the randos had created these little book forts, and at the end, one of them suggested they all take a moment to promote their work. The two dutifully did, then turned to Powers, who had no books in front of him.

    Powers, with ponderous slowness, reached into a plastic bag and pulled out two cans of soda. “I’m Tim Powers, and these are two cans of Diet Coke that I got at the 7-11 on [some nearby street].”

    This story says something about Tim Powers. I’m just not sure what.

  • Oh, and prepare a little. I freakin’ hate when panelists walk in a say “What’s this again?” like they were pulled off the street at random. I’m not saying you need handouts and a Powerpoint presentation, but at least, please, have thought about the topic longer than your coffee order.

  • Thanks loads for this! I will be speaking on my very first panels this fall–self-published and female, gasp–and, while I’m confident about the topics, I don’t want to be “that” panelist. I will print out this post and tape it somewhere I will see it often. Probably next to the gin or the chocolate.

  • As a general note to programming–ASK before you make someone the moderator. I had the very unpleasant experience of walking into my very first panel EVER, never done it before, a little nervous, and looking down to see the note on the back of my name-sign said “Moderator.”

    When I said “Whaaaaaat?” the GoH liason said “You’ll be fine!” cheerily and walked out.

    It was…not fine. Actually, it was downright ugly, not gonna lie. I feel for those in the audience, who got “Dude talks for an hour, being interrupted by very weird New Age author, while frightened artist tries to referee.”

  • What we need is a thread of anonymous comments regarding “worst panelist behavior/how to get an audience member to never buy your books.” For example, a self-published author once threw a plastic egg at my head. I don’t remember her name or her books, the free codes for which were in said egg, but I will never forget getting beaned between the eyes with a pantyhose can.

    • Bubonicon has the delightful “Worst Panel Ever” where the various members act out the worst panelist behavior (at least for the first fifteen minutes.) I was honored to have Connie Willis moderating when I was on it. We had Rampart of Books person, “I don’t know why I’m on this panel” person, and “showed up late” person. I played games on my phone and had it ring randomly and communicated in grunts.

      George R. R. Martin heckled from the audience. Possibly the highest profile panel I have ever been on, and my job was to be awful. *grin*

  • I second Tuck’s Be Funny rule. Or, at the very least be entertaining.
    I love doing panels at conventions and have been lucky to be invited to do so. Another aspect of panels that I love is getting to meet and discuss the topic with your fellow panelists.

  • July 1, 2014 at 4:27 PM // Reply

    The Great Wall of Books deserves its own number in the list. If you really want to show a book cover when you’re introduced, the audience will forgive you for being happy about your book coming out. Then take down the wall and be on the panel.

  • Number 6! I am, 85% of the time, the only female on a panel full of white dudes because I write SF. I have been incredibly lucky, though, because for the most part the moderators make sure all of us have a chance to speak. However, it can still be intimidating to be the only one representing my gender. I would love to see more minorities represented as well as women, specifically on SF panels.

    The wall of books some folks bring up onto the panels can be hilarious (to me anyway), but when you’ve so many books that now your wall is in front of me, that’s when I get a bit pissy. I almost wish the moderators would start encouraging folks to bring nothing but a few business cards to keep in your pockets. Just get up there and be awesome; people will want to check out your book if you do this. And, if you’ve written a kick-ass book, the book will sell itself.

  • Number #10 I agree with so much. I have been to precious few cons (to my sadness) but there are times when I read transcripts or watch podcasts. My favorite answer to any question related specifically to his books is when Jim Butcher chuckles wickedly and says “I’m not going to answer that.” An answer like that just makes people even MORE intrigued.

  • I’ve just read the comments put under the article Chuck linked to http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/marinaomi-harassed-comics-panel and quite frankly I’m kind of ashamed to be human, let alone male right now. That people should turn it round and blame the victim so blatantly is just disgusting. I’ve always taught my kids and grandkids that the only person responsible for their behaviour is themselves, no excuses, no exceptions, and yet it seems that such a simple concept is beyond a huge number of people.

  • I’ve only ever been an audience member, but you speak for me in all respects. If I’m ever lucky enough to be on a panel, I will try to do as I’d like to be done to. That didn’t come out right.

  • not a writer, but i’ll be on my first con panels in a few months. Every time I read an article like this (or someone e-mails me super friendly helpful zomg thank you! advice) I feel a little less terrified.

  • I’ve never been to a con. I’m not entirely sure that I understand the point of them. Networking? Maybe it’s the social anxiety talking, but they sound like they might be uncomfortable. Do you basically just go to talk to people?

  • Regarding #3:

    I was once on a panel a few years ago with four other writers. I won’t name names, but two of them were pretty well known, and the other three of us were either only moderately well known or still pretty new. I don’t remember the topic of the panel (it might have been something about female villains in horror or something to that effect), but the two well known writers on the panel totally DOMINATED the ENTIRE panel. The other three of us could barely get a word in edgewise, and when we tried, the two better known authors would actually talk OVER us because, apparently, the three of us missed the memo that the panel was supposed to be ALL about THEM. The moderator didn’t do anything to shut that shit down, either.

    Needless to say, that was not a good panel experience for me.

  • Chuck, you actually helped pop my moderating cherry last month. The things you say are all true. Moderating is definitely a tricky gig. All throughout our training they kept repeating the same mantra, “If the audience remembers you, you’re doing it wrong.”

  • I don’t know why everyone is saying it’s so hard to get on a panel if you’re self-published. I’m self-published and I haven’t had any trouble. Granted, most of the conventions I’ve done are pretty small, but I just got asked to moderate a round-table discussion on RA Lafferty at WorldCon, despite my lack of knowledge of the subject material or any previous experience as a moderator.

    I think that conventions don’t have a problem with self-published authors–they have a problem with unprofessional douchebags, which, unfortunately many self-published authors are. (To be fair, many traditional authors are as well, given some of the comments on this thread!) In order to overcome that stigma all you have to do is prove you’re not a douchebag. You do this by being professional, courteous, state your qualifications and limitations honestly, be enthusiastic, and make it clear that it’s not all about you. If you still get turned down then try again next year, or somewhere else. Like anything, once you have some convention experience behind you, bigger events are more likely to consider your request.

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