As a writer, I sometimes get the privilege of being on panels at conventions. Most people don’t get to do that — and I happen to find it a lot of fun. It’s also nervewracking for a lot of people (I’ve seen new people freeze up altogether).
So, I figured I’d post a few of my tips for both being a good panelist and dealing with the stage fright and such.
Dealing with Stage Fright/Anxiety
There’s two ways stage fright manifests: “Oh wow they’re all looking at me and I’m going to mess this up” or “Nobody would want to listen to me. Nobody’s going to show up.”
The latter is less of a worry for panels. You can tell your brain that if nobody wants to listen to you, they’ll want to listen to somebody else. Attendance, though, can vary. I’ve been on panels where we outnumbered the audience and ones where we violated the fire code. It’s probably way more about the topic and the time slot than you.
But here are some tips for dealing with stage fright:
- Be prepared. Make notes even if you don’t think you’ll need them. The act of making notes will help you remember what you intend to say, and you may well not need them at all.
- Practice in front of a mirror at home. It really does work.
- Do breathing exercises. The simplest is to breathe in for a count of seven, out for a count of four. Helps in the dentists’ chair too.
- Accept that you will make a mistake. You will say something wrong. You will have your mind go blank when the moderator asks you a question. We’ve all done it.
Do not take anti anxiety medications or supplements without the advice of your doctor or a herbalist. Please. Most especially don’t take anything brain altering if you don’t know how it will affect you.
Being a Good Panelist
Now for the meat of the matter — the things I’ve learned over the years make a good panelist.
- Dress appropriately for the convention and for the panel itself. For most science fiction conventions, jeans and a geeky t-shirt are fine, but if you prefer to dress up a little that’s good. Some more professional conventions may have a dress code of business casual. I’ve also done panels in costume when it’s appropriate. Bear in mind that panel rooms can be sauna or siberia.
- Hydrate. For the love of whatever you hold sacred, drink enough water. If there’s water in the room for the panelists, avail yourself of it.
- Silence your cell phone. If you have your notes on a tablet, turn the wi-fi on it off. Keep your cell phone in your pocket unless you actually need to look something up, and then tell the audience and the other panelists what you are doing.
- Look at the audience, not the moderator. If you turn towards the moderator, your voice will also turn towards the moderator and you will be harder to hear.
- If you have a mic, don’t lean into it or “eat” it. Look at the mic and speak naturally. If you do not have a mic, imagine that you are talking to the very back of the room. If you’re going to do this regularly, you will need to learn to project your voice properly. (If you happen to know some theater kids, ask them for help).
- Carry throat lozenges, especially if you are doing more than one panel in a day. Even if you don’t end up needing them, you will be popular with another panelist who does.
- Keep your introduction brief and relevant. Some moderators will introduce their panelists. Some will have you introduce yourself. Your introduction should be your name and why you are qualified to be on that specific panel. You may also want to include your pronouns. For example: “Hi, I’m Jennifer R. Povey. I’ve sold short fiction to a variety of professional markets. I also write tabletop gaming supplements, so I get paid to worldbuild” would be my planned introduction for a panel on “Worldbuilding in Short Fiction.”
- If you get moderated, don’t take it personally. I’ve been moderated. Sometimes we all get carried away and the moderator has to tell us to shut up. (More politely than that, but you get my drift).
- Limit self-promotion. Even if you are there to sell books. I know one writer, who I won’t name, whom nobody wants to panel with any more because he manages to tie every question into why the audience wants his books. At science fiction cons, the moderator will generally give you an outro. That’s where self promotion goes. Along the same lines, it’s fine to bring a relevant book, but please don’t hide behind a wall of them.
- Learn to read your audience. A good panelist is moderated rarely because you eventually learn to self moderate, stopping yourself when you are going on too long. Is the audience upset with something another panelist said, and if so can you say something to counter it? (I don’t recommend getting into conflict with other panelists, but when a gay man in a LGBT representation panel insists that it’s good for trans people for cis men to play trans women and half the room flinches…) Are people bored?
- If a con gives you a table tent that doesn’t have their logo or anything…one with just your name? Keep it. Then take it to the next con for when you forget your table tent. I did say when, not if…
Dealing with a Bad Moderator
I’m separating out the final thing I’m going to cover. Sometimes you get a bad moderator. I’ve had moderators belittle panelists (twice at the same con!), lose control of the room (happens to even good moderators sometimes), decide to do a completely different panel from what was on the schedule or, most commonly…not show up. Or not know they were going to moderate because somebody in programming messed up.
How do you deal with these things? For the last, I personally am an experienced moderator and I prep to moderate every single panel I am on just in case. I’m not suggesting everyone do that, it’s a lot of extra work. If the moderator is late, then you can often fill the time by starting in on introductions — I’ve been the late moderator rushing into the room and was quite happy to see people doing that.
If there’s no moderator listed for your panel, talk to programming. This does put you in danger of being tapped to moderate, but they can’t fix it if they don’t know there’s a mistake.
If the moderator loses the room, it’s the panelists’ job to prop him up. The worst mistake I ever made was when a moderator lost control of a racist heckler and I didn’t step in. I should have. If the moderator wasn’t willing to ask him to leave, somebody had to be. (It was a very bad situation that has thankfully not been repeated).
If the moderator is being just plain bad, sometimes there are things you can do. Let’s say the moderator kind of forgot about the quiet, timid panelist on the end, you can end your answer with “But we haven’t heard from Sharon.” That’s often enough to give them a polite nudge.
Short story time: I was on a panel about the “Future of Dungeons & Dragons” at a con. The moderator showed up and put a massive stack of books in front of himself (note I’ve already said not to do that). Halfway through the panel, he reached over, patted me on the arm and said “Also, we have girls now.” No, I did not explode, although I was furious (I do not do well with unwanted touching). Note that I’d already told this guy I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs for twenty plus years.
Instead, I dredged my memory and pulled out some wonderful stuff about the original witch class, which was a terrible, sexist mess, ending with, “And this is why we didn’t used to have girls.”
He fled the room as soon as we were done and I haven’t seen him since.
Not everyone has a snappy comeback, unfortunately. And sometimes the only thing you can do about a bad moderator is go to programming and tell them what happened. I wasn’t joking about the moderator who did a completely different panel from what was on the schedule. The panelists were furious. The audience was unhappy. He was banned from moderating again at that con. Thankfully, this kind of thing is really rare.
So, the tl;dr of being a good panelist:
- Listen to the moderator and the audience.
- Stay hydrated.
- Know your topic.
- Silence. Your. Cellphone.
It’s not scary and it can be a lot of fun.