Your Fiftieth Convention Part 1: Panels

Conventions are fun. Conventions are interesting. Conventions are places where one moment you're admiring the latest cosplayer and the next you're in Wymore's Terror Dungeon, revolver against your temple as you pull the trigger, praying for the last empty chamber. That's what Salt Lake City Comic Con is like. This year Wymore was dressed as Emperor Palpatine.

Most of these blog posts have been written toward the new experience, but I can barely remember my first Con. I've been doing at least two a year since Writer's of the Future 19. Until I got my current job, where I can't take sick time even when I'm sick, it's how I spent all of my non-illness-related time off from work.

So let's start with the basics of Cons. Panels.

How do you get on panels? Well, hopefully, you know someone involved. If you don't, there are likely contact methods on the con's website. Theoretically, you have a marketable skill (such as being a newly published writer). The skill doesn't necessarily have to be writing related, though. If you're an expert on Tolkien or Star Wars, there's a place for you at any media con. We have a local here in Utah that has read the Silmarillion over 40 times. I don't even know if she has any other relevant skills. I just know I need her on any Tolkien Panel I run.

Communicate with whoever is in charge of programming. Let them know you're interested in being a panelist and in what ways your useful to them. If they need you, they're already contacting you. You need them, and so it's your job to let them know why they want you on panels without copping an attitude or acting entitled.

There might be a form to fill out. They may just send you an email and ask you to volunteer for specific panels. They probably want to know if you're willing to moderate. If you have never moderated before or seen a panel, maybe let them know that this con you'd rather not moderate but you'll be happy to next year.

So now you're on the  panels. What do you do?

I'll probably save basic con survival for the next post, so let's go straight to panel etiquette. Let's start with an iron clad rule. Unless you're Brandon Sanderson of Felicia Day, assume that you're time is least important of anyone's there. You don't need to comment on every question. You should keep your comments short, insightful, and to the point. If you can be funny, be funny. There is no greater asset you can bring to a panel than to be the person everyone wants to hear next. If you can become that person, great. But also learn how to shut up. Twitter-length answers are best. Always leave them wanting more. Always let the other panelists speak.

And keep the plugging of your book to appropriate levels. Don't to cash transactions when the panel is going on. Please.

Actually, that's twitter joke is great advice. Any answer you can keep under 140 characters probably isn't going to step on any toes. I was once put on a cryptography panel. I don't know crap about cryptography, but the con committee knew that they could put me on any panel and I'd be funny. So I was. I was Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football. My job was color commentary and then get out of the way. I talked a lot, but they were all one-liners that got a laugh and when possible made the more knowledgeable panelists look cool.

Let's say that again. The best panelist is the one that makes the other panelists look good. He doesn't argue with them (that's not the same as not disagreeing). He doesn't tear them down. Local writer Eric James Stone won a nebula. We have a running joke where I always introduce him as "Nebula Award Winning Author Eric James Stone." He never gets tired of it, but after the fifth time in one day, I asked him directly if it was getting old, because I wanted to make sure that I was always building him up, never wearing him down.

So what about when you are the moderator?


The moderator has two jobs. First, he makes sure that the audience has a great time. Second, he makes sure that all the panelists have a great time. The first task almost always trumps the second. If Manu Bennett is being an ass on a panel (I use him as an example because if you've met Manu, you know that this is an absolute impossibility), you might have to let him run amok a little, especially if he's the only big celebrity there, but otherwise, the first rule always trumps second.

So what does that look like? When I'm moderating on smaller cons, I usually consider myself the least important panelist. I might put in my opinion, but only about a fifth as much as if I were a panelist. I still make a lot of jokes.

When I'm moderating at Comic Con, I often don't sit with the panelists at all, I stand to one side, because there usually isn't a single damn person in that room that wants to hear what I have to say. I ask questions, but more importantly I watch body language. If Larry Correia is at one end of the table, he probably can't see knuckles whitening on the mics down at the other end. He'll talk, and he will always yield the floor, but he doesn't always know when to yield the floor just because of the way everyone is sitting. That's when I step in and say, "Steve, what's your take on that." Because Steve has been grasping the mic and waiting for a lull in the conversation for over a minute, but Steve is a little too laid back to jump in and seize a spot in the conversation.

Hell, most of the time, I don't even have a mic, but that has to do with my theater training. If you can't bounce your voice off the back of a room, make sure you can be heard as the moderator.

Sometimes giving the audience the best experience means you have to talk, but when you're the moderator, you only talk to keep things moving smoothly. Sometimes that's nothing but questions and quips. Sometimes you ask your first question and never need to ask another again, the panel takes a life of its own. Sometimes you are the smartest person in the room, where that subject is concerned, and you need to take a more active part.

Being a panelist is the number one job of a writer at a con (at least until you're big enough that signing books is your number one job). It's how you justify your existence. Research ahead of time. Come full of energy. Be engaging. You have one job.

Don't screw it up.