A Con Job: Tips for convention panel speakers
You've just been made an expert in something and now people are inviting you to talk to other people at conventions. What do you do? Grab a mug of your favorite beverage and read on.
Disclaimer - these are just some notes from my own perspective and experience, by no means exhaustive or complete. Hopefully useful and cogent, but I'm not promising anything. This is the exact opposite of an expert opinion.
Really basic 101 type stuff
When you go to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Pop Culture conventions etc there are usually panels you can sit in to learn more about your favorite topics. I've had the good fortune to be on a few panels* (usually in a crowd of other folks, usually related to Lovecraft/Cthulhu, fundraising, marketing, or prop-making).
Panels are fun, but they can be stressful for panelists, and the stress can come from some strange directions. I wanted to run down some of the more common thoughts and observations I've had, on the off chance they are useful to someone about to be on their first convention panel.
- So you're going to be on a panel…GREAT! They are fun! REMEMBER THAT! In any setting you can enjoy the atmosphere or you can BE part of the atmosphere. If you've been asked to be on a panel (or Q&A session, or to speak) it means, first and foremost, the panel organizer (track director or whoever) trusts you to contribute positively to the panel/track/convention. Heady times, my friend!
- Either you are an authority on a subject, were directly involved, have a unique perspective, or are really entertaining in front of a crowd. Or all of the above. Let that be your armor against self-consciousness and doubt; the organizer trusts you. Try and relax and remember that you are there in front of the crowd to be you; to bring your knowledge and experience and personality to the panel.
- Don't let the organizer down. Here's a handy dandy sub-list that will help you out.
WAY BEFORE THE SHOW
- When you are asked to be on the panel, nail down some specifics if they exist. What tone does the organizer want the panel to have (if any).
- Who will you be on the panel with? (You can and probably should look up your fellow panelists. This may induce nervousness or an inferiority complex, it may not. Try not to worry about it if it does…see #2 above). ALSO; remember, you have to speak too! I confess I have gotten too wrapped up and interested in what a co-panelist was saying and missed making a point I intended to add.
- Who is the audience? Speak to their interests and with language at their level.
- What does the organizer need/expect from you? Do you need to prepare a bio? How long? Can you/should you promote the panel on your social media sites (hint: almost always yes)?
- Do you intend to have any advertising collateral to leave in the room (perhaps by a water cooler or table outside?) Is that cool?
- Is it cool to have any book/movie/art example etc. that you are currently promoting discretely on the table with you? (Want to feel dumb? Leave yours at home and have everyone else lay their stuff on the table. I will always carry a Horror In Clay Cthulhu tiki mug with me from now on, just in case).
- Google the subject of your panel, unless you are an absolute expert on it, and take a few notes, or print out some notes. It does make one seem a bit more authoritative and helps refresh knowledge.
BEFORE THE PANEL
- Dress in a manner that feels most comfortable to you and helps bring out the you-ness to the surface. You will present more comfortably if you are comfortable. I can't make up my mind if showing up in a "Cthulhu Waits Drinking" shirt makes me the guy in the band wearing the band's shirt or not…so I err on the side of marketing and do it anyway. Plus it's comfy.
- Every day at the event, check in with the schedule/organizer and make sure the panel is still at the same time and location you expect it to be.
- Have a friend in the audience with a decent camera who can take a few photos. (You might ask if video is ok, and if so have someone video the panel for you**).
- Eat something. I don't mean a turkey dinner, nachos with all the trimmings, and 16 glasses of beer, but don't be preoccupied with being hungry (or with being full).
- Bring a pad of paper and a pen. Things will occur to you during the panel - it is helpful to be able to jot them down. Also to take notes, or questions you want to answer more fully online later.
RIGHT BEFORE THE PANEL
- Show up early.
- Locate the nearest bathroom and use it once or twice before.
- Don't be nervous.
- Turn off your cell!
- Try and meet the moderator before hand.
- Make sure you have water.
- Get your fooling with the mic finished early. A non-adjustable table mic stand puts the mic at about a foot off the table. I'm a tall man with a large belly, so leaning forward to speak into the mic on table makes me feel self conscious, breaks my eye contact with the audience, and compresses my larynx…you may not need to do anything special to talk into a mic, but if you do, think about it in advance. Will you hold it? Be aware your arm may get tired. You may want to raise the mic stand/put it up on a stack of books (if so, bring a plain solid block or something).
- I personally recommend trying to at least exchange words with the other panelists beforehand, but that may or may not happen.
DURING THE PANEL
- HAVE FUN!
- I've noticed there is a fair amount of "who's turn is it to speak" glancing around when in the front of the room. Sometimes there is a natural order to questions (everyone takes a turn answering) and sometimes there is a moderator handing cues. Try and look for the cues that it is "your turn" to speak, but be aware it is ok to follow up/interject where appropriate - just ALWAYS be respectful of your fellow panelists.
- Some people are more comfortable and experienced than others - if that's you, try and engage your fellow panelists a bit - in my experience the BEST panels get a little crosstalk going.
- First and foremost a panel should be informative for the audience and interactive with them; that can be a little easier to achieve if the panelists have already set a conversational tone. NEVER devolve to having a conversation at the front of the room that the audience isn't involved in; you'll lose them really fast that way.
- Don't shout into the mic. Don't swallow it. Certainly don't leap on the table and swing it around by the cord (unless it is a panel on 80's glam metal…then swing away).
- Try not to obsess over how you did. Like any stage performance, you probably are far more critical of yourself than you should be. Also, recordings will make you look and sound horrible to yourself. If you have one take note of how more experienced panel members fielded questions and segued between the question asked and the one they wanted to answer (pretty common I've noticed). If you don't have an answer you can just say that, or you can do the best you can and skew discussion in a direction you know.
- Pro Tip - if you have a bonafide authority on the panel and can't recall specifics when asked a question, you can sometimes Tai Chi the situation. Once upon a time (last week) I was on a panel entitled "Cthulhu 101" with Kenneth Hite…who WROTE "Cthulhu 101". When a fellow panelist was asked something about depictions of Cthulhu he started his answer with, "Ken can probably fill in some more detail, but from what I recall, Lovecraft actually DREW Cthulhu in a letter". He then proceeded to talk about his inspirations and interpretations. That was a pretty good answer, and created more of a dialogue, because when he finished talking Ken filled in some more detail.
AFTER THE SHOW
- Be available if possible. You want to interact with any audience members.
- who want to interact with you, if you have the time. Some people are more available than others. At minimum thank the organizer on the way out, and be aware people might take it ill if you immediately bolt.
- About a week after the panel follow up with the organizer and say something like "Hi! Had a great time on the panel.Wanted to followup....was there any feedback (from you or the audience) relevant to the panel in general or my participation in particular that could help me become a better presenter/panel guest?"