I promised this one, then got distracted. Mea culpa.
For background, I’ve been serving on and moderating panels at science fiction conventions for several years, and in that time I’ve seen some really good moderation…and some really sad attempts. The fact is that writers and experts are often asked to do this stuff without any formal training. I can’t replace that, but I can give some of my tips.
Honestly, the most common problem inexperienced moderators have is being weak. We are taught to be polite. If you’re a woman or read as one, you’ve gotten a double dose of that — we’re supposed to be quiet and meek.
Being quite, meek, or overly polite is how you lose control of the room. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. People are generally well behaved, and a good panel doesn’t need you that much.
Then you get a racist heckler…
It’s very important to remember one basic fact:
You are in charge, and everyone in that room has, by virtue of being in that room, agreed to that.
Yes, you can tell the famous person on your panel to be quiet so somebody else can talk. (Be polite doing it, but do it).
Yes, you can tell the attendee who is trying to creep onto the panel to shut up.
Yes, you can tell the racist heckler to shut up or leave the room. (Yes, I have thrown somebody out of one of my panels. I only had to do it once. It’s a last resort if somebody is being a real problem.
The second most important thing is to make like a Scout and be prepared. Have a list of questions in advance. (Although I will note: Sometimes your question list will not survive contact with the panelists).
Some cons will give you the email addresses of your panelists in advance. Use that. Read the background of your panelists. Your job is to make your panelists look good, so make sure your questions are appropriate. One of my big personal mistakes was not to do that before a panel on Gender in Comic Books. I assumed they would give me writers.
Nope. My panelists were two wonderful ladies…from the cosplay track. I had to redo my questions while the audience gathered. I learned my lesson. The panel actually went very well, just not in the direction I had originally planned!
Here are some of my other tips:
- Be sure to allow enough time for audience questions. If your audience is violating the fire code, you may want to drop a moderator question to give more time.
- If you get an inappropriate or extremely controversial question from the audience, consider taking it yourself. This depends on who’s on the panel and what the question is, but sometimes you have to take one for your panelists.
- Work out where you want to sit. Some people find the middle to be appropriate. I personally recommend that you sit on one end so you can see all of your panelists.
- If you are bad at names, like me, make sure to take a few minutes to read everyone’s names. If you have a name you aren’t sure of the pronunciation of, check with the panelist quietly.
- I personally have my panelists introduce themselves, but ask them to keep it short and relevant. Some moderators prefer to introduce their panelists, but you do run the risk of being the guy who swapped the bios of the two women on his panel…embarrassing!
- Don’t actually face your panelists when you ask the question. You should be watching them when they answer, but if you turn to face them they audience may not hear it.
- Repeat audience questions, unless you’re in a very small room with a small audience. This makes sure everyone in the room hears the question. At larger conventions you may have an audience mic.
- If there is a sign language interpreter in the room, ask them where they need to sit. They get priority over everyone else’s seating arrangements.
- In the same note, if you have a disabled panelist who has a mobility device, wheelchair, or service dog, they need space on the end of the table. Make sure they get it. If you have a disabled attendee and people aren’t letting them sit or put their chair where they need to, step in.
- Have somebody in the back of the room close the door once the panel starts.
- Hopefully this will never come up, but if you have any reason to believe there may be specific trouble in your panel — and sadly I’ve been there (in fact, it was the very same Gender in Comic Books panel mentioned earlier), talk to con ops ahead of time and have them place a security volunteer in the room. The time I had to do it, we had some people on site who we knew were going to harass a specific presenter, but we couldn’t throw them out until they actually did, and there was some concern they were going to go after other panels. There have also been issues with program participants being stalked. Most cons will put somebody in the room when asked — they’ll just find somebody interested in the panel anyway.
If you have any more questions about moderation, stick them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!