10 tips for Panel Moderators

A newbie author’s first year is like trying to sip from a fire hose. There are so many new experiences and things to learn. For the anxious, this translates into “so much stuff to get wrong.”

I want to reassure every new author: You Got This! You’ve already done things few people accomplish. You’ve started a book, finished a book, and found a publisher. You can do anything!

But what about moderating a panel at a local, national, or international conference? Can a newbie author tackle that? Yes, you can! Here’s how.

Play Nice

As a panelist, your primary goal is to play nice with your fellow panelists and the moderator, assuring that the audience feels entertained, enlightened, or both. Take turns. Share. Be kind.

As a moderator, the stakes are raised. Your job is helping panel members showcase their best selves. You’re responsible for making sure the audience leaves entertained, educated, or both. You want to present yourself well. But, as far as I know, there are no classes on the subject.

Thankfully, mystery writer Bess Carnan provides tips for moderators in a recent blog post “Studying the Art of Moderation” about her preparations to lead two panels at Harry Potter Fan Convention Misti*Con

Bess’s tips list is an essential read for all moderators and panelists. But I had a few things I wanted to add that helped me as a slightly obsessive moderator at a writing skills event, the California Crime Writers Conference.

I had two major concerns:

  1. How to be a good moderator when each of my panelists could have and in two cases actually had written the book on the topic.

  2. How to make sure the audience learned something on an essential topic. (For a summary of the contents of the Finish the Damn Book panel, check out my own blog post at: https://www.maryfeliz.com/blog/how-to-finish-your-book-15-guides-11-tips-and-some-quotes

Provide Learning Tools

There was so much I wanted attendees to know. And only 45 minutes in which to accomplish it. I came up with these solutions (and they actually helped!):

  1. Bring handouts with links to websites, book details, and other key material panelists will mention. I polled panelists ahead of time, requesting links to their websites and their favorite writing books. The list we created is here. Handouts mean attendees can listen without taking notes. Panelists appreciate you including their websites.

  2. Bring visual aids. The one thing I wanted the audience to walk away with was the sense that finishing a book is hard. I collected quotes from an assortment of writers on the subject, printed them out poster size, laminated them, and tacked them up behind the panelists so the audience couldn’t miss them. I included the images on the handout. (See images here) The rolled-up posters fit in my luggage. I flattened them out under the mattress before the panel. The duct-tape I brought affixed (and released!) easily from the vinyl wallpaper but would also have worked it I’d had to display them on the fabric skirt of the panel table.

Wrangle your writers

Writers are exited and nervous. They may talk too much or too little. How do you keep them under control?

The short answer is, you don’t. Managing creative types is notoriously difficult. Consider yourself their sheepdog rather than their boss. When they stray from the task at hand, bring them back on course. I used these tools:

  1. Set expectations: I told my panelists in advance that we were there to teach, not to advertise our books, and that I would stop them if they did too much marketing.

  2. Enforcement: I told my panelists and the audience that if the group went too far astray, I’d compel compliance the same way I trained my pets. I’d shoot them with a water pistol. (The water pistol had no water in it and I never employed it.)

  3. Encouragement: I feared shyness or fear would prevent attendees from asking key questions, so I handed out index cards and encouraged them to submit questions. I also invited them to ask us questions after the event or email us. (After getting permission from all the panelists)

  4. Damage Control: My most prominent panel member had a family emergency and had to bow out, alerting us the night before. I emailed him, offering sympathy with his predicament. “If and only if time allows,” I wrote, would he mind responding to one key question that I could read to the audience? (It was a question I very much wanted to hear the answer to!) He replied with terrific advice and reading it aloud worked well. While I’d never wish for things to go wrong, starting off with a disaster took the pressure off me and the rest of the panelists, quelling our perfectionist tendencies and allowing us to relax, be more open, and have fun, all of which are keys to a warm and inviting panel.

And that sums up my additions to Bess Carnan’s guidance: Prepare, but also relax, be open, and have fun.

Mary FelizComment