Moderating in Moderation


So you’ve sold your first book.  You’ve arranged a signing or two at local bookstores.  You’ve been asked to give podcast interviews and participate in blog tours.  Today you checked your email and you see you’ve been invited to be a guest panelist at a con.  How exciting!  You’ll be sitting at the table with three or four other authors, possibly even some you’ve admired for years.   You’ll be sharing your thoughts with the eager fans gathered to hear what you have to say.  When the time draws near, you receive your panel schedule for the con and notice you’ve been assigned moderator status for The Future of Publication After The Coming Zombiepocalypse.  Moderator?  Wait a minute…a second ago you were just going to say brilliant things to adoring fans, and suddenly they want you to be a writer wrangler.  What does it even mean to moderate?

I got home yesterday from Stellarcon, a student-run con in High Point NC.  We had a great time meeting fans and participating in panel discussions (if you’d like to hear one, here’s the link).  It occurred to me that we talk often about appropriate con behavior, and avoiding doing things that might come back to haunt you.  We don’t generally talk about what’s expected of people on panels.  You don’t have to have published a book to be a con panelist.  You can be an expert on some subject related to fantasy and science fiction, like ghost hunting or mythology.  You might be a filker or an actor.  Still, keeping control of a group of speakers is not a skill most people have mastered by the time they’re asked to serve on panels.  For writers who spend an exceptional amount of time talking to no one except the people who live inside their heads, running a panel can be terrifying. 

When you’re asked to be a moderator, you’re being asked to lead the discussion, keep it on topic and make sure the panelists don’t descend into fist fights if a sensitive subject comes up.  The first thing to do is read the panel description carefully.   You’re going to be seen as the leader, and you don’t want to come off sounding lost.  There won’t be a ton of information about your panel, but there’ll be enough to help you get started.  The next step is to prepare a list of questions to drive the discussion along.  They need to be open-ended, the kind of questions that panelists have to answer in more than three words.  Ask what genres the panelists believe will be hot after the zombie outbreak or whether they think the post-undead world will prefer e-books. 

After you ask the question, you’re going to have four or five people chomping at the bit, ready to start talking.  This is where the wrangling comes in.  Choose the panelist you want to speak first, and ask him to begin.  Usually moderators go from one end of the table or the other, since that’s the easiest way to make people take turns. Sometimes people will jump in and interrupt each other, and while that can sometimes lead to lively conversation, it’s not very efficient or even pleasant.  It’s the moderator’s job to keep things moving along and on topic.  If one panelist drones on and on, it’s your job to break in and ask the next person to speak.   If Joe Johnson can’t wait and blurts out his opinion even though it’s Eva Ellison’s turn, it’s also the moderator’s job to make sure Eva gets her chance eventually.  The moderator is allowed to share her opinion as well, and most good moderators wait until all the others have spoken before taking her turn.  That way she’s in a perfect position to ask the next question and set the whole thing rolling again.

A poor moderator lets the panelists ramble on even after the topic has been left so far behind that no one recalls what it was.  We humans are flighty creatures, and we make wild conversational leaps when left to our own devices.  A poor moderator also allows members of the audience to join the discussion as if they were panelists themselves.  Audience questions are always welcome, but when audience members take ten minutes to make a point, or when two or more audience members carry on a lengthy conversation between themselves, the panel is no longer the focus. 

The worst moderators ask the questions, then take it upon themselves to answer, leaving the panelists out entirely.  A moderator sometimes has an idea how he wants the discussion to flow, so instead of asking the questions and letting the panelists answer in their own ways, he chatters on for twenty minutes, because he can’t bear the thought that some aspect of the question might not come up in the ensuing answers.  He might let another panelist speak, but he’ll leap right in as if the two of them are the only folks in the room.   It’s pretty telling when an audience member has to raise her hand and ask to hear from the other panelists (yep, I’ve seen it happen.)

If you’re new to the con scene, it’s probably better not to accept a moderator position until you’ve attended a few panels and gotten an idea of how they’re supposed to work.  But once you’ve seen a good moderator in action, don’t be afraid to give it a try.  Moderating a panel can be fun!


9 comments to Moderating in Moderation

  • Beautifully put, Misty. As you alluded to some bad instances of moderating I found myself having flashbacks… This should be required reading for all panel moderators.

  • Misty, I’ve been on all sides of the moderator situation, and anyone who never learned to take their turn (sandbox manners) is a horrible addition to a panel. Taking back control, from a bad moderator, a bad panelist, or a bad audience member, takes practice in diplomacy or the ability to be either persistantly funny or rude. It can be done, but it isn’t easy. You know? There should be a course in that.

  • Such great advice Misty! I’ve moderated (at ConCarolinas and at academic conferences) and it can be hard. Having a few pre-planned questions can be a godsend. Definitely a bad idea to go “okay, so what shall we talk about?” Although sometimes the audience has good questions, too (especially on vague, “how to write” panels. Um, how to write what? What part? etc.). I have to say, Ed Schubert is an awesome moderator. 🙂

  • Very well put! I have to add another “bad moderator” problem I’ve seen. Asking the same innane questions of a whole slew of authors. At Comic Con San Diego last year I almost jumped up and hugged George Martin when he (acting as a moderator) pointedly stated he would NOT be doing that (after a series of author panels where that happened). He tailored each question to each panelist, making the answers interesting and specific.

  • As you pointed out, some people see the role of moderator as an opportunity to take power. But I know a number of folks who love moderating because it gives them the chance to do the opposite: They make sure everyone else does all the talking–all they have to do is point. 🙂

  • Emily, Ed is an awesome mod. I’m looking forward to being on panels with him at ConCarolinas.

    Marie, sounds like Martin went above and beyond the call – I wish I could have been there to see it.

    Wolf, those are the kind of moderators that make panels great.


  • As an audience member (so far), I’ve noticed some of the dynamics and I’ve seen panels get hijacked both by authors and attendees. The worst I’ve seen so far was a panel of three (two authors, one author-moderator), where both the moderator and one of the other two had *very* strong personalities and nearly bit each other’s heads off. But the topic itself wasn’t very focused and provided a great platform for soapboxing. The whole thing was “did I just witness that?” and I left feeling like I hadn’t learned much … about the topic, anyway.

  • I can’t agree with you more, Misty. Moderators make or break a panel. A great moderator can facilitate discussion so the topic is explored thoughtfully without going off on tangents, ignoring panelists, or letting any one speaker hijack the conversation.

    A bad moderator can take a wonderful panel topic with excellent panelists and turn it into a sixty-minute test of patience and, at best, a waste of time.

    I’ve not had the opportunity to be a panelist yet, but I’ve definitely been that audience member who raises her hand in a desperate attempt to get the moderator (and therefore the discussion) back on track. More than once, and with mixed results.

    I think the key to what you’ve written here is that moderators should come up with a list of questions to drive the conversation, and not a list of answers they want to hear. I think an additional skill that would be good for a moderator to have is the ability to construct new questions around the answers other panelists have given. Asking open-ended questions is often very difficult to do on the fly. When involving the audience, it becomes even more necessary to walk the fine line between control and politeness, because some folks can go on.

  • Late to this conversation, but wanted to chime in and compliment you on the post — great advice that all moderators should follow. I very much enjoy moderating panels, but it really is VERY different from being a panelist. And also wanted to add that Ed is a terrific moderator — I thought of him immediately, even before I read Emily’s comment.