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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

5 Don'ts of Panels (and Podcast Roundtables)

I'm officially back from Worldcon/LonCon3, which marks my third convention this year (preceded by ICFA and CONvergence).  Having had a few experiences as a panelist, I've learned a few things about what works and what doesn't.  The below list is not exhaustive by any means, but it reflects my fairly new experiences as an panelist and audience member.

Here goes:

  1. Do NOT assume something personal about a panelist
    In particular, do NOT assume you share experiences with a panelist because you share some physical or personal feature.  Two religious people may have had entirely different journeys.  Two gay men or lesbian women (or bisexuals) may have had entirely different lives.  Two people of the same race or gender?  The same.  The problem with making these assumptions isn't that they are inherently "bad" in any kind of moral sense; rather, the problem is that some of these assumptions can actually make panelists extremely uncomfortable.  In some cases, a panelist might be so uncomfortable talking about personal experiences of race or gender or whatever that asking them point blank will reveal that discomfort to the audience.  I would hope it's obvious why this is not a good thing.  Many of the topics we now discuss in the sf/f community are not unlike handling prickly pears, and so it's incumbent upon each of us to recognize that everyone has a different level of comfort with those topics.

    On a related note:  don't assume vaguely topical jokes about a panelist based on some defining feature of their physical person (race, gender, dress, etc.) will be received as jokes.  I think many jokes are harmless, but you really should know what an individual is comfortable with before making jokes about their appearance.

    None of this is universal.  I just think the best practice in cases of potentially controversial topics is to ask your panelists whether there is anything they really don't want to discuss.  And then you drop those undesirable topics entirely.
  2. Moderators Should Moderate
    Your ONLY job is to keep the panelists discussing the topic.  This isn't an easy thing to do, as I've learned from moderating a handful of panels.  It takes some degree of skill to keep a conversation evolving organically.  The biggest no-no of moderating, however, is in assuming you are a panelist, too.  You're not.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't respond to questions if you can bring something to the table that your panelists have not; it only means that you should be more interested in keeping the conversation going than in making sure your voice is heard.  The worst moderators are the ones who seem to think this is as much their show as everyone else's.

    And the worst of the worst moderators are those that have to be moderated by the panelists.  I've seen this happen.  It is not pretty.
  3. Ask Questions; Don't Babble
    Taking into account that exceptions might exist, audience participation in panels should be in the form of actual questions.  Most of us have heard this piece of advice before -- and for good reason.  The audience only gets a small portion of time in which to participate, so when someone takes up 5 minutes offering their own point, it comes off as a tad selfish.  I've had this happen at an academic conference:  one individual went on and on with a critique of a fellow panelist's paper, refusing to allow anyone else to ask a question; in the end, the Q&A time became "random dude's babblefest time."

    I'm not saying that offering up a comment is necessarily a bad thing, but if you're in a room full of raised hands, a question is much more useful than a running commentary.  Ask a question.  If you can, turn that comment into a question; you can always talk to the panelists afterwards!
  4. Wait to Prep Your Panel Until the Last Minute
    If possible, prep your panel well ahead of time, as travel arrangements may mean your panelists aren't available a week before the convention.  I learned this first hand; it's not a wicked sin or anything, but it does mean your panelists can be put on the spot more often than they are comfortable with.  Sometimes, you can produce a more interesting organic paneling experience by getting the basics out of the way.  I find the in-depth discussions of a topic come not from going over the surface but digging into the meaty beats underneath.  For example, it's probably less interesting to discuss *what* urban fantasy is than it is to discuss how urban fantasy has evolved over time (or how urban fantasy authors engage with the political and social realities of the real world).

    Prepping panelists beforehand also gives you the opportunity to ask if there's anything they *don't* want to discuss (which leads me back to #1).
  5. Avoid Making Negative Blanket Statements About X
    Generally speaking, blanket statements are inaccurate and crass.  If you identify a negative trait with an entire nationality, it's likely you're completely wrong; in some cases, it's quite likely someone in the room identifies themselves as that nationality.  This applies to other groupings, too.  The problem with blanket statements is that they have a tendency to come off as offensive.  If someone says "all Americans are X," and that thing doesn't apply to me, I tend to feel like I'm being shit on for being born in the USA.  I can't imagine how it feels for someone coming from a traditionally marginalized culture or country to be told something similar, especially by someone who is not part of that culture or country.

    There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Context matters.  There are contexts in which a group identity is used to make a point about that group; that point usually implies exceptions to the rule.  That said, I think it is often more useful to qualify every statement about a group.  Often, "some" is a necessary word for the panel toolbox.
And that's my list.  What would you add here?


Note:  I've indicated that these items also apply to podcast roundtables. That said, podcasts have one advantage over convention panels in that they can be edited before release.  I have had experiences in podcasting where I've asked a question a guest didn't feel comfortable answering, and so I've deleted that from the podcast because it didn't belong there.  With panels, you need to be more careful, since visible discomfort can be interpreted in a variety of ways by other panelists and by the audience.  Additionally, panelists are probably less willing to say "I am uncomfortable discuss X" or "let's avoid that topic" when put on the spot.

Note 2:  Most of these will not to be demonstrated through example.  Why?  Most likely for the exact same reason that led me to list the item in the first place.  These examples are based primarily on personal experience, with some exceptions.  I've remained vague in places to avoid drawing attention to anyone in particular, in no small part because I do not have permission from the individuals involved -- and I'm not sure I want to discuss specifics, even though I think the issues should probably be discussed by someone.

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