People go to comic conventions for many reasons.  Some want to meet their favorite creators, some go to bask in the sheer nerdity of it all, some go to cosplay, some go to actually seek out comics.  (What a concept!)

There are a large number of people who go to cons for the panels; meetings where writers, artists, educators, celebrities and more sit a table and talk about a specific subject for about an hour.  These are often a great chance to get insider information on the creation of comics, an in-depth chat from the writers of your favorite TV show or books, or a short intense discussion on a specific topic with a group of panelists.  I’ve attended dozens upon dozens of these panels at San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic Con, The Kenosha Festival of Cartooning, and others, and they can be among the highlights of your con experience.  Seeing creators whose work you love talk and interact with one another can be quite thrilling and educational.

However, I’ve found that so much of the success of a panel depends on the skills of the moderator. For every great panel I’ve been to, there are probably two that were just listless, poorly conceived, or frankly, boring.  And there’s absolutely no excuse for that (other than maybe “we put it together last minute and no one had any time to prepare anything, just get up there and vamp,” which probably happens from time to time.)

A little background on me is in order. First off, if you had said to me about 7 years ago that I’d be perfectly comfortable getting up in front of a crowd of a couple hundred people, grabbing a mic, and running a panel, I’d have laughed you out of the room.  We’re talking about a guy who would literally drop out of college classes if he found out there was going to be an oral report sometime in the year.  The great irony of my life; put me behind a mic on the radio or a podcast, and I’ll talk to anyone.  Put me on a stage in front of 3 people, and I’d rather be set on fire while being forced to watch a Michael Bay movie marathon.

That all changed in 2012, when Anne Hambrock invited me to be the moderator at the 2nd Kenosha Festival of Cartooning in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Anne and her cartoonist hubby John who do the “Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee” had started this most excellent celebration of cartooning the year before, and Anne found that she didn’t particularly like the moderation part of the job, and that she really needed to focus on the incredibly time-consuming task of a running the festival.  She and John had been on Tall Tale Radio and were big supporters of mine, but the request still floored me.  I was happy chatting with people on my podcast, and I have always enjoyed doing the research on my guests, but to actually stand in front of humans and…gulp…do public speaking?  I broke into a sweat just reading the email.

It was then that something inside me said “it’s time, you chicken-sh*t idiot.”  I realized, as a 45 year old man, that it was time to face this demon and smack him down where he belonged.  It was very scary (especially the part where I emceed the panel in front of a hundred high school students), and I’m sure that I didn’t look all that comfortable up there that first year, but after it was done, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, and that overall, this was something I’m good at doing.  I didn’t think much of that last part…my general self-deprecating nature just assumed that hey, if I could do this, anyone could.  But as I noted above, it turns out that no, not everyone CAN do this.

If you know me, you know I’m not exactly Captain Toot-My-Own Horn, but you know what? I’m good at this panel moderation and interviewing thing, dammit.  While I feel that I’m learning something every time I do it and become more comfortable each time as well, I think I’m qualified to lay down some moderation tips I’ve learned over the years, so here goes!

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

TIP 1: DO YOUR RESEARCH, DAMMIT!
TIP 2:  FILL YOUR TIME, DAMMIT!
TIP 3: KEEP THINGS MOVING, DAMMIT!
TIP 4: BE FLEXIBLE, DAMMIT!
TIP 5: COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PANELISTS, DAMMIT!
TIP 6: POWERPOINTS CAN BE GREAT AND THEY CAN BE HELL, DAMMIT!
TIP 7: Q & A SESSIONS ARE DEATH AND YOU SHOULD AVOID THEM, DAMMIT!
TIP 8: MISCELLANEOUS TIPS, DAMMIT!

TIP 1: DO YOUR RESEARCH, DAMMIT!

File this under “You’d Think This Would Be Obvious,” but apparently, not so much.  When I get a panel, or am asked to moderate, the first thing I do is start researching my subject and my panelists.  It’s the Age of Google, people. There is no excuse for not knowing your subject or your guests.  I’m positive I err on the side of over preparation, but that’s a lot better then standing up there at the lectern and exuding “I have no idea why I’m here.”

TIP 2:  FILL YOUR TIME, DAMMIT!

Panels are typically scheduled for an hour, like say 1pm to 2pm.  But there’s always about 5 minutes of set up, and generally, they want you done 10 minutes before the top of the hour so they can transition the room/audience/next panel smoothly.  So that means you have 45 minutes to fill.  How do you do that?  Well, here’s some basic math:

— If you plan on Q&A (which can be death, and I will cover Q&A later), then you need about 10 minutes for that.  That brings you down to 35.

— If you have a panel with multiple members, then you divide the time as equally as you can between them.  3 panelists = 15 minutes each max.  4 panelists = 11 minutes each.  5 panelists = 9 minutes each.  (If you can, I would say no more than 5 panelists for a one-hour panel, or you’re going to short-change people.)

— If you come up with good questions (see below), then each answer will take somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes to fully explore per person.  So, if you expect everyone on a panel of 4 people to answer a specific question, you can figure on 4-8 minutes per question.

That means on a panel of four people that lasts 45 minutes, you’ll need between 5 and 10 questions.  (I always aim high…and usually questions have several points to make, or secondary questions…but this is a decent way to begin.)

TIP 3: KEEP THINGS MOVING, DAMMIT!

The part of this gig that comes with experience is the ability to keep things moving.  You learn people’s bodily cues as to when they’re about to wrap up, you listen for pauses that are coming up, you find a place to insert your own comment or joke, which then allows you to move along to the next panelist or subject.  I could probably examine that in more depth, but I think that after 260 podcasts over 8 years, my skills in that area have simply come from time and repetition.

That said, here are some basics to keep in mind:

— Don’t let any one person dominate the conversation.  This can be hard sometimes, but use panelist names to move things along;  “I’d love to hear Steve’s take on this…” or “How do YOU feel about that, Phyllis?”

— Try to avoid pauses. Always have your notes near and a pencil, and know where you’re going next once someone wraps up their thought.

— Use panelist names to get their attention and give them time to sit up to the mic, or as happens in many cases, move a shared mic over to them.  “Lewis, I’d like to ask you this next question first…”

— Use a joke to change gears, or if the audience laughs/cheers at some comment a panelist makes, you can jump in at the end of that and move things along.

— Look for visual cues.  People’s body language can really tell you what’s coming next, or if they’re about to wrap things up.  The panelists will often talk to YOU, as you’re the one who asked the question, so you learn to see changes in their expression, where their eyes are looking, etc., that will let you know when a transition is coming.  This can be difficult with people you don’t actually know; people have very different ways of expressing themselves, and if you’ve just met an artist, you might be reading them wrong.  Which brings us to the next point…

TIP 4: BE FLEXIBLE, DAMMIT!

Preparation is grand, and I will have pages of introductions and notes in front of me, and a plan laid out for the panel…and I am ready to throw all that out the window if need be.  Question 1 usually gets things going, but if someone brings up something you were going to ask in Question 7, then by all means, head to Question 7.   Keep the flow going.  There are two paths here:

“That’s great you mention that, because I was going to ask about that later…but let’s tackle it now…”

or

“That’s great you mention that, but before we go there, I wanted to cover more on this subject first….”

That second one comes in handy because maybe there’s a point you’re trying to make, or that you’re trying to get more in-depth on the main subject and don’t want to deviate just yet.  Many panels are very specifically about one subject: “Character Design,” “How to Get Published,” “Comics in the Classroom.”  It’s important to stick close to your subject because that’s why people are sitting in the room.  Cons are very busy with a million things to choose from, and the people in the room are there because whatever you’re talking about truly interests them, so make sure you stay on topic as best you can.  (They may also be in the room because they’re just freakin’ done with walking all over creation and your room had seats free, but that’s OK, too.)

So, the topic is important, but keeping the flow is, too, so flexibility is the key word. I spent a lot of time in my life doing live theatre, live TV, live radio, and all the preparation in the world can’t cover what might happen in real life.  When you’re properly prepared and know your subject, you can bounce around as need be, just have that pen ready to cross things out on your notes so you know where you are in your process.

Also, part of the joy of these live panels is the interaction between the people on the stage. Often times, they know one another, sometimes very well.  That sort of fun interaction is priceless, so if a good back and forth is happening up there, run with it.  I have used the analogy that running these things is a lot like herding rabbits…you just do your best to keep everything moving in a general direction and realize that a lot of things are just out of your control.  “Controlled Chaos” is your mantra.

TIP 5: COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PANELISTS, DAMMIT!

In a perfect world, you’ll know what the subject of your panel is long in advance of the convention, and you’ll know who is going to be on there.  It’s your duty as moderator to reach out to everyone via email and keep all lines of communication open.  I introduce myself, and in the initial email give a very general outline of what I’d like to cover at the panel, and repeatedly ask them for their input and if they think that’s the right path.   The panelists are the experts, so you want their input and to make sure they know what’s going on.

Just before the convention, I’ll send out another email maybe with a bit more specifics as to the questions I’m going to ask and the subjects I’m going to cover.  I try to couch it in fairly general terms, and if there’s anything I’m going to ask a certain panelist specifically, I’ll make sure they know that.   (Sometimes you can do group emails for all of this; some people prefer more direct contact and loathe group emails.  Go with the flow.)

Here’s the behind-the-scenes truth about this part, though; people on panels are generally looking to YOU to run the show.  They know the concept of the panel, but they are very busy people.  Their con experience might be running from panel to panel, to and from a signing, doing an appearance at a booth, or just walking the con with their family.  Basically, this panel you’re doing isn’t necessarily the most important thing in their lives at that moment. (Gasp! I know, right?)

This basically means don’t be afraid to take the reins and say “here’s what the panel is about, here’s what we’re going to cover, here are some specific questions, here’s the time and place, see you there.”   That’s what most people want to hear, and all they need to.   Simply put, be communicative, but don’t go overboard.

Another truth of the world is that you’re often going to run into having one or more panelist who just don’t respond. Sometimes you might think your emails are going into their spam folders, but more often than not, they’re just not the super-responsive types or are super-busy.  We all have people like that in our lives; some will respond to your emails in depth about nine seconds after you send them, and others who you might hear from once every 6 months.  Do your best to send “gentle reminders” if you need, but the bottom line is that you can only do so much on your end.  Prepare your questions, do what you can on your end, and run with it. (See the section on being flexible!)

TIP 6: POWERPOINTS CAN BE GREAT AND THEY CAN BE HELL, DAMMIT!

I’m a professional video editor and graphic artist, and like I said, I’ve worked in TV and radio. I want my panels to LOOK good, too.  I want a cool Keynote presentation on my iPad with professional looking slides for every panel member…maybe pictures of their work, etc.   Sometimes if I’m talking to artists/cartoonists specifically, I’ll want examples of their work to put up behind them as they talk, running my iPad like a TV director as they talk.

This is all great, and in that perfect world that doesn’t actually exist, can really make your panel great.  Reality, however, often dictates otherwise.  SOOOOOOOO much can go wrong with your best laid Powerpoint Plan:

— the venue’s projector isn’t working.
— the venue’s AV “expert” is some volunteer who barely knows how to use their phone.
— you forgot to charge your iPad.
— the dongle you have to connect your device to the projector doesn’t work/isn’t write/is back in your hotel room

What I’m saying here is that for the most part, treat your Powerpoint as a cool extra you hope to use, but if you can’t get it working in that 5 minutes you’ll have before your panel starts, then bail on it.  No one wants to go to a panel that starts 10 minutes late because you and the AV Guy are talking about what channel the video is supposed to be on.  If it’s not “plug and play,” move on.

Now, of course, there are exceptions here. At SDCC 2017, I did a panel on Character Design 101 with artists from comics and animation.  They had given me all sorts of amazing behind the scenes art from their projects showing sketches, color tests, character evolution, etc.  It was amazing stuff, and obviously, it was the meat of the presentation.  Had my Keynote not worked, or my iPad been unable to connect, it would have totally hampered my presentation.

Note that I say “hampered” and not “ruined.”  Why is that?  Because I’m prepared, dammit!  I knew that was a possibility and made sure I had non-image related questions about character design. There was plenty to discuss about the concept of character design, so if had to punt, it would’ve still been a great panel.

Granted, if you’re moderating a panel called “The Art of Super Famous Artist Lady,” and the Keynote presentation won’t work for whatever reason, you’re sitting in that proverbial canoe without the proverbial paddle.  I always have my Keynotes on my iPad AND my iPhone which can be used in a pinch. I always have my own iPad dongles to connect to VGA and HDMI.  I’ve even been known to carry HDMI or VGA cables of my own just in case the one at the venue is fried.  (And honestly, if my panel WAS something like “The Beautiful Art of Picasso” or something, I might even carry my own damn projector, but I’m a little weird that way.)

Another note…often times in panels I’m doing, there might be call for artists to work on a document camera that is projecting on a big screen.  This is super cool, and people love seeing artists work.  Guess what, though?  You can’t run a Keynote off your iPad AND the document camera concurrently.  If you’re REEEEEALLY lucky, the venue might have an “A/B” switch that would allow you to go between them, but brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you that you better test that out long before you present if that’s how you want to run things.  Generally, if there’s a document camera and live art, don’t worry about the Keynote presentation.  No one will care about it, despite all the cool unicorn clip art you put in it with all the colorful fonts.

TIP 7: Q & A SESSIONS ARE DEATH AND YOU SHOULD AVOID THEM IF YOU CAN, DAMMIT!

Ok, ok, I know…some people love Q&A sessions.  It’s adorable when fans line up and want to ask their favorite artist some wonderful question that brings tears of joy to everyone’s eyes, and you feel one with the universe and mankind as an artist and a fan make an unbreakable connection.

Yeah…like that ever happens.  You know what happens?  People line up and ask long, rambling, incoherent, I’m-Every-Stereotypical-Nerd-Nightmare-Uber-Fan-And-This-Is-My-Chance-to-Impress-or-Score-Easy-Snark-Points questions, and you’re up there wondering how on earth you’re going to salvage any of this.  Better yet, you get people asking questions about stuff that has nothing to do with your panel, or some moron who decides this is the public venue to say something totally unrelated about a thing he thought about one time 6 years ago.

I know I’m getting old and have less and less patience with this mass of idiots we call “humanity,” but trust me, unless the panel is SPECIFICALLY one about Q&A with your panel, I do my best to avoid it.  I will always say that the panelists will be happy to answer questions after the panel outside in the hallway if they can.  (Check with your panelists to see if this is true.)

There are other techniques to use;  maybe have 3×5 cards up front and before you start the panel, tell the audience to write down any questions they might have and to drop them off at the stage, or hand them to a volunteer, or a friend you’ve drafted into helping you.  If there’s a wireless mic, you could take that and walk around the audience like Dr. Phil and go to people who have a question.  (TIP: Under NO circumstances hand someone the mic.  They will believe that the floor is now theirs to ask their long rambling incoherent pseudo-question.  You hold the mic for them, and if they try to take it, you hold onto it like it was your first born child.  Say “I’m sorry, the tech guys don’t want me to have people hold the mic” or some other techno-babble lie. Whatever you need to do…just don’t let go of that mic.)

If I have run through my questions and there’s 5 minutes left or something, I’ll toss out the “does anyone have any questions?” bone and see what happens.  This is also something you need to base on the size of the room.  I’ve done panels now in intimate rooms with 50 people, and in very large rooms that hold hundreds.   Be careful saying “does anyone have any questions” in a big room filled with people because you’ll either need a mic to run around with, or one that’s set up in the main aisle.   As stated above, flexible is key.  Some panels might be totally about Q&A, but overall, my experience says “avoid it…there be dragons there.”

TIP 8: MISCELLANEOUS TIPS, DAMMIT!

–As Helen Parr, aka “Elasti-Girl” once said, “It’s not about you!” You’re there to toss out questions, keep things moving, and to make your panelists look good.  That’s the gig in a nutshell.

–WATER BOTTLE!  Usually, there’s a water cooler in the room, or pitchers of water up front for the panelists.  The better cons have people who run individual panel rooms, and their job is to make sure there’s water, sound, name placards, etc.  But, don’t trust this to be the case.  Carry a water bottle.  You’ll need it.

–Make sure your panelists are set before you start.  Give them a look, walk along the table and make sure they have water/paper/whatever they might need.  If there’s time, check that the mics are on and such, but that’s probably taken care of by the tech folks.  (I AM tech folk, so I’m not afraid to futz with mics and soundboards.  I don’t suggest you do that necessarily.)

–Always have your notes printed and with you.  Always have a pen/pencil…you’ll often think of something as you’re up there that you want to cover, and if you don’t jot it down, you’re going to forget it, trust me.

–I’m a little paranoid about these things, so I’ll print a couple of copies of notes, and I’ll make sure to email them to myself.  I’ve had situations where everything is nicely in my backpack, but my backpack is in the hotel room or my car.  I just like backups.

–Personally, I’ve found that handwriting my introductions and main questions out helps me remember them, and I can make them a little bigger, as I am old and feeble.  Also, having all my notes for a specific con in one nice, analog, old-school Moleskine notebook just makes me feel more secure.

–Introduce your panelists, but don’t go over their entire resume; get to the meat of the panel as soon as you can. 45 minutes flies by, trust me.

–Obviously, if your panel is a spotlight on one particular person, you need a lot more questions and such, but if you’re in that position, you know that.  You’ll probably work more closely with that person about the panel, the questions, and everything else.

–If you are given the option of wearing a wireless mic that you can clip to your shirt or jacket (a lavalier or “lav” mic)…DOOOO IIIIIITTTTTT.  Trust me…it’s utterly freeing to be able to move around and/or not worry about leaning into a mic as you’re trying to read your notes at the same time.  I even like a wireless hand held mic in some situations.   If you’re really smart and you get to the panel early, schmooze the tech folks and ask if they have lav mics…they may have them ready, but don’t offer them to you unless you ask.

–Here’s something I’m getting better at that I know I wasn’t good at early on in my moderation days; look at the audience from time to time when you’re talking to them.  Trust me, it’s not like this life-long public-speakingphobe is suddenly 100% relaxed on stage, but you want to try to engage the audience as best you can.  I’m getting a ton better at being able to look around at the people and still focus on my notes and the upcoming questions.  I suspect this will be a life-long journey of discovery that you will always be learning about.  The thing that has really helped me is this; people at these panels really WANT to be there.  They’re excited by the subject, they love whoever is on your panel, they’re just cool nerds who want to enjoy their time at a convention.  This is a very welcoming place; you’re not having to convince anyone of anything, they’re already on your side and ready to listen.  Remember that.

–If you need to remind your panelists to talk INTO the mic, don’t be afraid to do so.  It can be awkward for them at times; they have to look down the length of the table at you for questions, or over their shoulders to look at the screen if there’s something up there they’re talking about.  Many of the people I talk to have many a panel under their belt and they know all the basics of proper microphone use, and know how to engage both me and the audience.

–Many artists, however, are pretty damn shy, and even if they’ve done panels before, it’s not exactly the most comfortable place for them to be. Also, they might have very little if any microphone experience, and will be too far from the mic, or looking at me and totally missing the mic.  Often a member of the audience will shout out “we can’t hear you!” which can help, but usually you can fix this problem by taking the time to simply say “…and let’s make sure you’re talking into the mic so everyone can hear you.”   I’ve been behind a mic since I was 18 doing college radio at Arizona State, and I’m a professional voice over artist and podcaster; mic awareness is second nature to me, but it isn’t for most people.   So keep that in mind.  If I have time before a panel starts, one of the last things I’ll do is get all the panelists attention and ask them if they’re ready, and to remember to talk into the mic.  It really helps.

–I always ask my panelists to do their best to arrive 15-20 minutes before the start of the panel.  Once you go in, it’s a frenzy of getting everything set up.  The previous panel is leaving, you’re trying to get up there, you have to get your notes set up and the previous moderator is having a discussion with someone and won’t unplug their damn laptop, etc.  So I like to have everyone there 15 minutes early to shake hands, make small talk, go over any last minute things, etc.   Not always possible, so be ready to go on a moment’s notice; but generally, people like to get there a little early.

–Finally…remember to take pictures!  I often forget this. I’m in a frenzy of worrying about my notes, the panel, the questions, etc., and then at the end of the panel you’re scrambling to get out of the way of the next one.  But try to remember to get your panelists together for a fast pic.  It’s really helpful to have a friend or relative with you at these things for this aspect alone.  Not to sound jaded or “been there, done that,” but over time, cons and panels sort of run together, and you’ll want pictures to look back at to remember the journey.