Be the Moderator’s Favorite: 10 Tips for Panelists

The Gen Con Writer’s Symposium is a hidden gem of the yearly Indianapolis gaming convention, with over 200 hours of programming and an amazing list of authors and editors and other publishing types. This year, I had the honor of moderating a few of the panels—and in doing so I had some thoughts. Here are said thoughts, for your consideration:

  1. Be Concise. It’s not only polite to your audience and fellow panelists, it’s also smart—speaking in sound bites makes you and your comments more memorable.
  2. Be Considerate. Help the moderator make sure all the voices on the panel are heard. Don’t hog the mike or exhaust the question on your turn; make it a conversation. Engage the other members of the panel in discussion by passing the metaphorical ball. And if a question is more relevant to another panelist, wait for them to speak first.
  3. Be Topically Relevant. Even if it’s awesome advice. Even if it’s freaking hysterical. There are many, many panels at Writing Conventions. The audience came to yours for the topic—often with specific questions they hope to see addressed. Don’t let them down! Be awesome: stay on topic.
  4. Be Prepared. Weirdly, it can be hard to speak to your opinions and techniques if you haven’t thought about them first—harder still to do it concisely. So take some time beforehand to mentally break down the topic, be it by thinking, writing, or even just chatting with a friend about it. It’s surprisingly effective.
  5. Think Before You Speak. If you know (vaguely) what you’re going to say before you start saying it, you’re more likely to say something smart and concise.
  6. Speak with Rhythm. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Good panelists’ comments do, too. This means starting with a summary line, unpacking it, and then having a concluding line. It also means speaking with the familiar rhythm you use when telling a story—middle tone with a question, high tone with a statement, low tone with the ending. This is more engaging for the audience, and also allows the other panelists and the moderator to get a sense for how long your bit will take. (Also, a little enunciation goes a long way. Just saying!)
  7. It’s Okay to Leave Things Out. Say you have an hour-long panel. That means it’s actually 50 minutes, to allow for the clearing of the room. Which means you have to cut out 5 to 10 minutes for introductions and 15 minutes for questions. Which means you have 30 to 35 minutes to try to fully address a topic. You’re not going to cover everything on a subject. You may even miss some really important things. That’s okay. It’s better to address what you can, well, than to cover the whole topic, poorly.
  8. Don’t Dwell. Conversely, be aware of how much time a given question is taking up—particularly when arguing. Watch the audience for glazed eyes, and the moderator for frantic signaling. Rarely is a question broad enough to warrant 35 minutes of discussion when there are so many other questions burning.
  9. Keep Focused on the Takeaway. Broad platitudes help no one. Step-by-step minutia lose both the point and audience. Somewhere in between? Goldilocks. So how to put this into action? Limit yourself to three specific details per question, with a minimum of one. That will help keep you saying things that audience can take home, ponder, and put into action without ever being boring.
  10. Don’t Be Memorable in a Bad Way. It’s great if you get in a really funny line, or say something super insightful, but if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay! Not every panel can be brilliant, especially pre-coffee. But just because you’re not memorable for something good, doesn’t mean you should strive to be memorable for something bad. Just strive to be the best damn panelist you can be, and one day, your panel will come.

Obviously just my take! If you do it differently, and do it well, awesome. If you agree with me: well done! You obviously have excellent opinions. And if it helped you: yay! That was the intent.

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