There is, actually, NO single, right way to moderate an author panel, so I’m offering my own thoughts only. Many outstanding moderators and panelists view it differently, but here’s my take on both roles. By the time you read this, I may be already moderating my first panel of three at this year’s Bouchercon *gulp*
Like many people, I do get nervous in advance of public appearances. I still get jitters–not cripplingly, but notably–even after doing a lot of them and even though I enjoy doing them. That’s because I want things also to go well this time, and you can’t know whether it worked until it’s all done, like a manuscript. Part of my insuring things go well is that I have a clear idea of my own rationale for such appearances. It’s served me well enough so far, and I stick to it. Whether you think my tips have merit, finding any approach you like for such situations (since like public readings, author panels are something fiction writers are encouraged to do) and being consistent will help provide a buffer against anxiety.
Alfred Hitchcock interviewed by Dick Cavett
AS A MODERATOR: When I’m asked to moderate, I approach it like the authors are showing up to do the Dick Cavett show. I pick Cavett as an example, though I wasn’t alive for his whole run. But in interviews I’ve seen (and there are a bazillion worth watching online–just search), he comes across as upbeat and well-versed, confident, but with a light touch that keeps the focus on the guests. That is a smooth quality, IMO, so that’s what I try to be: an engaged, friendly person who’s done enough homework to offer the authors a positive and interesting way to showcase their work.
Now, I don’t have a team of research assistants or junior production staff, but I’m blessed by the times. For bios and book info, I’ll search. If there’s a featured interview online or guest post, I’ll find it. So, the only info I ask from authors is to let me know if there’s a specific question I should or should not ask, and whether their online materials are correct. I’ll always mention their latest publications or endeavors–that’s what will most likely be available in the book room after all–but occasionally, there’s something specific to an audience’s interest or something late-breaking that ought also to be part of their intro. There are also occasionally landmines (could be contractual or related to partnerships or series) or sensitivities (a recent online contretemps or blow-up) that an author wishes to dodge in panel conversation. I can’t control the audience Q&A, but I can and will steer clear of such things myself if notified. Yes, the latest tempest may be the most recent topic of interest, but I’m there for the work first.
I do read a lot a material for panels, but probably not an author’s entire bibliography and maybe not even to The End of the latest novel. My goal is to get enough of a feel for anything I don’t know yet (since I’ve already got some major genre mileage on my eyeballs) that I can harvest it for questions. I frequently use an author’s words, quoted in brevity, as a launch pad for my questions. If I want to ask questions about characters, I’ll read a sentence of the novel’s description about the protagonist. Humor? I’ll quote from a a funny interview the author gave. I make these quotes brief, and I mean brief, because the mod should never be the focus for too long. But when I’m spring-boarding from the author’s own work or words, I’m always confident of being on-topic. Talk To Me About Your Work is my mantra. It’s the source, the wellspring, the safe harbor to which I will return for questions again and again.
Now, backing up some, even if supplied the text by authors or their websites, I may need to cut panel introductions down. If you recall my How to Read Fiction Aloud post, when reading material for an audience, I’m at the pace of about 150 words/minute. Therefore, I like an author intro that’s no longer than 30 seconds, about half that time, or about 75 words at max. Why? 30 seconds can seem like a plenty loooong time to simply be reading from your notes, but audiences aren’t there to hear me, and they won’t recall all the fine details anyway. In fact, because of this, rather than introduce everybody all in a row at once, blab, blab, blab… I like to give the intro at the time when I ask each author the first question. To me, this links their bio more memorably to the question and response. Think of it like a cinematic establishing shot. (Yes, I may ask general questions for the whole panel’s response later, but I always start with an intro and question for each individual. ) To some people, this approach seems weirder than rattling all the intros off at once, but I think it gives each author’s intro pride of place, attention right at the time they can respond to it, like a natural conversation. YMMV. To condense bios, I may summarize a list of by-name awards down to “three lifetime achievement awards from international organizations.” It’s easier to recall, still sounds impressive, and lets us swiftly get onto the conversation.
I do try to retain anything unusual from the bio that will help the author stick in the mind, however, especially for those building series and careers. So sue me, I’d rather mention your parents’s ostrich ranch than each of the titles of your past four books. If I mention the series name or protagonist, interested readers can and will look up the book list themselves, but they’ll be more likely to remember they wanted to if they can mentally link your name, series, and the interesting detail of a growing up on an ostrich ranch. And since I got all that from your online materials (right?), a general search of “cozy mystery bike shop ostrich ranch” will bring your site right to the top of the list. Ta-da, your prospective reader has found you, even if the convention program and schedule get lost.
Let’s suppose your sadly impoverished bio has no ostrich ranch, no, don’t bother making one up. I’m most focused, as the audience will be, on having the conversation. Without doubt, it’s the conversation that audiences remember most of all! Casual, pithy, relevant remarks are the ones that get recalled and retold. As moderator, I’m trying to give the maximum opportunity for a conversation that feels unique to the time and place and crowd, something candid, not canned. This becomes increasingly important with authors and audiences that have a lot of panels in their pasts. I’ve heard about every crime fiction topic ever invented, I’d guess, but I still leave grinning after terrific panels. While at the dais, IMO, the moderator and panelists should work together to cultivate a spontaneous, genuine feeling and to promote generous participation (and that’s whether the topics are funny or deadly serious, or even feel at the outset to be threadbare or misconceived). That authenticity and goodwill happen in the moment. It’s not necessarily related to any advance cramming, it’s about enjoying the experience in real-time, about making the most of sharing with like-minded fans. For an audience, that creates a positive emotional impression of the experience that will outlast the details.
AS A PANELIST: Please speak right into the mic (but don’t yell) with genuine enthusiasm about your own work. If you don’t seem to care, who else will? Yes, yes, many authors are introverted and shy by nature. But, if you can sit in the dentist’s chair for an hour and resist the urge to fight back, you can overcome your other natural instincts long enough to smile for people who may actually want to invite your work into their imaginations and pay you for it! That said, here are some of my Pet Peeves for Panelists:
1) If there’s a great story you like to tell, please don’t use the same verbiage or punch line unless it’s popular enough to be a t-shirt and people expect it. Do feel free to allude to the fact you’re aware the audience may have heard it before. In stuffy conference rooms, and especially after lunch, eyes glaze over with lusterless repetition. Make sure it’s really worth the risk to jam in that old chestnut. Didn’t something silly happen with your neighbor’s dog and the laundry last week? Survey your family’s Facebook stories, and find a way to work them in–you’re a creative liar, remember? You can always ask your friendly mod (yes, ask me!) to bring up the subject The question might be a set-up, like in a late-night talk show, but your having fresh material to share and discuss is more important.
2) If your work is a really bad fit for the panel you’re on (which definitely happens), grousing about that or other conference logistics during the panel will only make you look like a sourpuss. Your gripes may be well-founded, but is the impression you want to leave with prospective readers that you’re person who’s a drag to spend time with? Or instead, if you’re inviting readers into your written adventures of life-and-death and injustice, is there a chance you could, for the short-term, embrace a bold and adventurous can-do attitude yourself?
Even if nerves make you chatty, don’t get labeled as a glory hog.
3) Don’t steal all the airtime. As an audience member, you already know how much you hate when this happens, but be especially aware if you’re a habitual blatherer when nervous. *my hand is raised* No one, not your mother or your literary agent, wants to hear all the details of the dream in three acts you had the night before you started writing your novel. “I got the idea during a nightmare” is perfectly interesting (and Tweetable) and leaves the audience wanting to know more, not wishing you’d wrap it up. Don’t get so caught in your own head that you fail to look at anyone else–they’ll give you cues to their interest. Also, if I’m doing my mod job right, after you open an interesting topic, I can invite your follow-up or check if another panelist has had a similar experience, leading to an expanded discussion. We’re with you then, captivated, not simply held captive.
4) Your opinions are yours. Yes, you should share them (re: that authenticity I keep harping on about), but as your personal convictions and from your perspective, always leaving respectful room for disparate views–there are plenty, which is what makes life and fiction entertaining.
So many panels fail in just these simple aspects, that I can guarantee if a panel session feels genuine and collegial (of whatever style the moderation or topic or authors), people will tell you it was a great panel. Really! Take my word for it, and see you at the next panel!
Talk to me mic image via ShizzleDizzleMagic‘s 9 tips for public speaking.