With in-person conventions back (if often in modified form), I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to think about what makes a panel fun and interesting both to be on as a panelist and as an audience member.
If you’re attending cons as a writer, you’re selling yourself and your work. It can be a great opportunity to reach new readers and develop relationships that can be fruitful in the long term. The exact procedures and best practices can vary by con, as some are more formal than others, but on the whole, here’s my advice for giving good panel — which, for me, means being both engaging and considerate:
Practice (and tailor) your introduction
Introducing yourself at the start of the panel isn’t the time to go into your full CV or publication history. It’s not even the time to recite your full 100 word bio that’s printed in the program.
A good formula? “Hi, I’m [name], I’m the author of [most recent publication or series] and [something else relevant to your writing career]. I’m also [whatever your day job is, or if you don’t have one, mention a hobby].” Then, if there’s anything particularly relevant to the panel I’m on, I’ll mention that. I tend not to go into my background as a Shakespeare scholar, for instance, because that’s usually not directly relevant — but at RavenCon back in April, it was! I was on a panel called “Elements of the Fantastic in Shakespeare,” so it was good to establish my credibility to speak on that particular topic.
Keep the intro to your book or series brief — an apposition, just a short phrase. “I’m the author of the Aven Cycle, historical fantasy set in an alternate ancient Rome” or even just “I’m the author of epic fantasy series the Aven Cycle.”
Something else relevant to your career could be mentioning another book or series, particularly if you have a sizeable backlist. It could be mentioning that you’re a cosplayer, that you write for a fanzine, that you’re also a vendor, whatever. For me, it’s generally mentioning Worldbuilding for Masochists.
Practice this so that you know what you’re going to say before the panel even starts. You don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’ve written!
Try to give actionable advice
If you’re on a writing panel, your audience is interested in the craft of writing. Many of them may be writers themselves, whether they intend to seek publication or not. So don’t just talk about what you’ve done; tell them how you do it. Break it down into chunks that could apply to anyone doing this kind of work, not things that are so idiosyncratic to you and your own work that they’d be hard for anyone else to mirror.
For instance, I was on a panel about creating magical systems. We had a question about what to consider when developing them. So I broke it down into three simple things: the source, the cost to the mage, and how it fits into the society around it.
All of those three things are places I can go a lot deeper, of course. Thinking about the source can mean deciding if your magic is divinely inspired, rises from nature, whether there’s a finite or infinite amount of it, whether it’s innate or can be learned. The cost might be literal or more figurative. The societal considerations might cause you to ask how common magic is, how it relates to religion, if a career can be built off of it, etc. And we did go deeper into some of those ideas. But when the moderator or an audience member asks “How?”, I try to keep the initial answer simple and brief.
That’s important because it keeps things nice and clear for the reader, but also because you need to…
Be mindful of time
Every panel seems to have at least one guest who talks for three times as long as anyone else. Maybe they’re arrogant. Maybe they’re oblivious. In either case, it’s not kind either to the audience or the other panelists.
So, be aware of how long you’re speaking! I know some panelists who prop a clock up in front of them, giving them an easy way to track how long they’ve been talking at a quick glance.
Don’t feel like you have to get everything in. You may have a lot to say! You might be able to fill the whole hour on your own! But that’s not the point of a panel. Be careful, too, not to belabor a point. You don’t need to reiterate the same idea four times in slightly different words; make the point, then stop talking.
If you’re nervous about going on too long, practice ahead of time. If you know who your moderator is going to be, email them and ask if they have questions prepped — or, just take a guess at what some questions on your topic are likely to be. (The panel description might help you out there.) Then, set a timer and practice answering. This can be helpful just to get you comfortable knowing what talking for thirty seconds, one minute, or two minutes feels like! (It’s not nearly as long as you think). And, really, that’s the range you should be aiming for.
In a fifty-minute panel, most moderators have six to ten questions prepped, though I’ve been on panels where either the conversation was good enough or someone bloviated enough that we only got through three or four. Rarely do you actually get to ten. So, let’s say six — Well, at least 5 minutes at the beginning and a few at the end are gonna be introductions and wrapping-up. If you want to get through six questions, that’s seven minutes per question, and at least one of those is probably going to be the moderator asking and explaining it. So, six minutes to divide between panelists. If there’s only two or three of you, you can go on a bit more. If there are five of you, less so!
A short, pithy answer is also going to be more memorable to the audience than a long meander.
Don’t give a full synopsis of your book
One way to make sure you’re not going on too long? When you’re talking about your own work, keep it brief.
You want to give the audience the flavor of your book, enough that it might pique their curiosity and make them follow-up by taking your card, following you on social media, or — glory of glories! — actually purchasing your book.
A detailed synopsis isn’t going to do that. They haven’t come to have a book report read to them. So don’t give them plot point by plot point. Don’t even give them the jacket copy. Give them major concepts and themes.
So, for example, when I’m talking about the Aven Cycle, I don’t get into the specific moves and countermoves that the characters are making; I talk about how the books explore power and agency in a complex world and about how I love the intersection of magic and socio-politics. Let the audience hear the big picture things that make you excited about your own work!
I also recommend not mentioning your characters’ names. For the most part, the audience is not going to retain that information. Just say “my protagonist,” “my antagonist,” “this great side character,” “the love interest,” etc.
Spread the love
Don’t just talk about your own books. Yes, you’re on this panel because of your expertise, but it comes off as tedious and self-centered if you can’t seem to relate the topic to anything but your own work. Recommend other books that exemplify what it is you’re talking about. Pass along craft advice that you’ve received from other authors. Tell the audience where they can go to expand their horizons.
And, of course, I advise being mindful about who you’re recommending. I’ve sat next to a lot of older white dudes who don’t seem to have read anything new since 1990, so that’s all they can rec. It’s highly predictable, and it’s not really helpful for anyone in the audience hoping to be published. They need to be investigating the genre as it exists now. I intentionally recommend authors from marginalized communities as often as possible, and I try to keep those recs very current. I’ll only dig back in time if I need to talk about something that was formative for me or for the genre; otherwise, I go for things that were published within the last few years.
Listen to your fellow panelists
It’s super easy, when you’re on a panel, to fall into the trap of just waiting for your turn to speak, practicing your own answer to the question in your head. This is particularly true if you’re nervous. But do both your fellow panelists and yourself the solid of actually listening to them!
For one thing, they’re here for a reason. They’re going to say smart things, and you never know who might be your next great read, critique partner, podcast guest, or just good friend! And you won’t find out if you’re not taking in their words.
For another — and this is, admittedly, a paneling preference of mine — conversations are more interesting when there’s some interplay between the panelists. Now, not all moderators really allow for this. Some are very strict about one person answers, then the next, then the next. But the best panels I’ve been on have had some flexibility, and once everyone’s at least had a chance to talk, allow for some chitchat between panelists. I was on one at ConCarolinas where the conversation was so great that forty-five minutes passed and it felt like twenty.
It’s also wonderful to be able to refer to what someone else has said — and not repeat it! It’s always okay to say, “Yeah, I think [Other Author] summed that up perfectly” and then allow the panel to move on.
The panelists’ table is not authors’ alley
At many cons, authors and other creators will bring samples of their work to put on the table in front of them while they panel. It’s a mini-marketing opportunity, and it’s great if the audience can associate your face and words with your work right off the bat. Whether this is commonly acceptable or considered crass depends a lot on the con, though. I find that the more academic or professional the assembly, the less likely people are to do this. It’s a lot more common at fan cons, where it’s generally accepted that everybody’s trying to sell something.
What you don’t want to do is usurp the entire table with a display of all your books and other knick-knacks. This isn’t the vendor room, and chances are good that anytime someone bumps the table, something’s going to fall over.
I typically have one book and a stack of my postcards with me. I’ve invested in a couple of solid stands so that I’m not trying awkwardly to prop a book open. (I use these). And I usually wait to see what other folk are putting out before I do one, both, or neither.
Let them know where to find you
Most moderators will give all the panelists a chance to close out with a mini-pitch for themselves and their work. If you’re going to be on other panels during the con, it’s great to mention that; if you have a table in authors’ alley or the vendor room, point the audience there; if you’ll be hanging in the bar and are open to random folk coming to talk with you; if you’ll be at karaoke or a dance and want people to hang out with; if you’re leading a tabletop game — all of those things are great to mention! If the audience is digging you, you want to be able to build on that connection.
And, let them know where to find you post-con. I used to try to rattle off my website and socials, but now I just tell folk to come up and grab a card, since that has the QR code for my LinkTree on it. Then they don’t have to try to scribble anything down or memorize a handle.