Friday, February 22, 2008

Moderating panels, sometimes a scary job . . . or not . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Appearing on a panel is no longer as scary for me as it was in the beginning, when my first book was published. With five books in print, now I simply show up with my latest book to display, some water to drink, set them far enough apart so as not to spill one on the other, settle into my seat, and prepare to answer the questions the moderator has prepared. And I bite my lower lip from time to time to prevent myself from hogging the panel.

Moderating a panel, on the other hand is still VERY scary for me. The moderator is in charge of keeping the panel running smoothly, asking the appropriate questions from time to time to keep the conversation flowing, making sure none of the panelists hog the panel (preventing the others from having their equal time) and making sure there is water for everyone but that they don't spill it on the other panelists. (The mention of water is mostly to tickle my Poe sister, Julia's fancy. She spilled water on me at Love Is Murder last year. But, in all fairness, she managed not to let that happen this year when we sat side by side.)

My first experience at moderating a panel came about at the Cape Fear Crime Festival in 2004. All three of us panelists showed up, the moderator did not. I believe she canceled shortly before the conference and somehow the ball was dropped about letting the panelists know. We sat and twiddled our thumbs as the clock ticked away our valuable minutes. When it became obvious she wasn't going to make it, I volunteered and the others were happy to have me take on the job. NO preparation time, but no time for me to panic either, and I knew the other panelists well, so I was able to come up with some reasonably intelligent questions on the spot.

Next I was asked to moderate a panel on promotion at Love Is Murder last year. I knew J. A. Konrath and Luisa Buehler and was very familiar with the excellent promotional techniques of each. The other two, Deb Baker and Sandy Balzo I'd not met but was able to get a sense of their promotional tactics through email. When it came time for the panel, it was standing room only and I was in a panic, but having researched the panelists ahead of time made it fairly easy. I asked a couple of questions, and off the panelists went, each giving excellent promotional tips. The audience was delighted with the information they received, as was I. We can all use tips on how best to market our books!

My most recent moderating assignment was again at Love Is Murder, this February. I was assigned to moderate the panel on Movie Options featuring Barry Eisler, Kent Krueger, Tim Broderick, Paul Guyot, and David Montgomery. I know nothing about movie options but have always dreamed of being offered one since my first book came out, so yeah, I was a bit nervous about moderating this panel. Particularly since it was all guys, all far more famous than I'm likely to be in this lifetime. Did I mention they are all good looking? Sigh.

Nervousness exploded into panic when I sent out my first email asking what they wanted to discuss on the panel and a couple of them responded by saying they didn't have movie options and had no idea why they were assigned to this panel. EEEEK! BUT their answers were humorous (like Paul saying he'd be happy to show up and make fun of Barry's hair) so I figured we'd be probably be okay. I researched each of them, asked a couple more questions, and crossed my fingers.

The day of the panel arrived. I read their bios to the audience, asked the first question of Barry who DID have a movie option, and next thing I knew, we were off to the races. The guys began asking each other questions, which covered my worry about coming up with enough intelligent questions for them. And the answers were terrific. My question about the on-going writer's strike followed by their thoughtful answers filled up the remaining time. All in all, I'm very happy how the panel went, and I think the panelists were too, as each had ample time to talk about his work.

My point here is this: appearing on a panel at a conference or convention is MUCH easier than moderating same. The moderator has to ask enough questions to keep the panel going along smoothly AND keep it on track of the assigned subject. And probably the most important moderator job is to keep any one panelist from hogging the panel so that everyone gets equal time. Not always easy. But if you research your panelists carefully, chat via email with them about how they would like the panel to go, most of the time the panel will run smoothly, the audience will love it, and, with any luck, the moderator's main job will be to stand aside and look pretty while the panelists give the information the audience came to hear.

If you are asked to moderate a panel instead of appearing as a panelist, don't panic. Do your research, consult the panelists, and have fun. And remember, the biggest complaints about panels is usually about moderators who either hog the panel themselves or allow one of the panelists to hog it. Let the panelists know you are in control, but let them do the majority of the talking.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for the reminder, Lonnie, I always need it: Bite lip, do not hog panel...bite lip, do not hog panel....Sometimes I get carried away! At last year's Malice, the Sunday morning panel I moderated had 20 attendees and many empty chairs in a vast room, so I used an old social worker trick and had everybody pull their chairs into a big circle. VoilĂ ! instant group therapy! It worked great. :)

Joyce said...

Thanks for the info, Lonnie. I was on my first panel at the Pennwriter's conference last year. It was on finding an agent. Most of the others on the panel were friends of mine. I still turned red and stumbled over my words when it was my turn to say how I got an agent. Fortunately one of the other panelists loves to talk, so I was off the hook for the rest of the session. I think I'd rather drink toilet water than speak in front of people!

Paul Guyot said...

Lonnie, you were terrific. I was on four panels at LIM and yours was the best.

For me, I think the moderator makes or breaks the panel. I've been on panels with outstanding writers (myself excluded), but a lousy moderator, and the panel died.

And I've been on panels with lousy guests, but an excellent moderator who made the thing come to life.

I think conferences could really help themselves by putting more thought into who is (and isn't) moderating the panels.

And you should always be hired!

Barry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry said...

Barry here, just following Paul around as usual...

Lonnie, the panel was a blast! And for anyone who wants a few extra guidelines, check out The Moderator's Manifesto.


Sandra Parshall said...

The first panel I was ever on, anywhere, was about research, and I knew I didn't have much to say on the subject, so I volunteered to moderate. I had a wonderful time! I want to do it again, and when I fill out the author sheet for conferences, I add the note that I'd love to moderate any panel, any subject, but so far I've had no other offers. I think it's the lingering ghost of my former reporter self who just loves asking people nosy questions. Lonnie, I haven't seen you moderate, but I'll bet you're terrific at it.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Hey everybody, thanks for the comments. Paul, Barry, you guys helped make it a fun panel! Hope to see you again soon.

Tim Broderick said...

Lonnie, you were terrific! I had a great time at LIM and you did a fantastic job with our panel!

Julia Buckley said...

Lonnie, you are a perfect moderator.

And thanks for the water mention. At least we can laugh . . . now. :)