Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

Bristolcon and musings on panels

By Emma on October 18, 2012

It’s Bristolcon on Saturday! Yay! Here are the things I’m going to be doing:

12.50 – 12.55: Reading – A snippet from the upcoming Split Worlds novel released by Angry Robot Books in March 2013

13.00 – 13.45: The stress of space travel on family relationships: Returning to Earth to find yourself younger than your own grand-children isn’t just a headache for the greetings-card industry. The panel looks at depictions of the family and wonders, are all families in SF fiction dysfunctional?
With Dev Agarwal (mod), Emma Newman, Aliette de Bodard, Gareth L Powell, Leigh Kennedy

19.00 – 19.45: YA fiction: Just for Girls?: YA is a thriving genre, but it seems to be more of a genre for girls. Is there a gender imbalance in YA, and if there is, how do we address it? How do we get boys reading?
With Foz Meadows (mod), Emma Newman, Moira Young, Kim Lakin-Smith, Emma Pass

I’m nervous (no surprise) but I’m trying to remind myself that I’ve been on a few panels now and that nothing terrible will happen. I thought it might help my stupid lizard brain if I wrote about what I’ve learned about and what I aim to do on panels, and who knows, it might help some of you guys too.

What are panels for?

In case you’ve never been to a convention, a panel is when the convention organisers arrange for a group of people (usually four plus a moderator) to have a discussion on a particular topic in front of an audience. The panellists usually sit behind a table (I’ve been on a couple where there was no covered table to sit behind and it freaked me out!) with microphones and after the moderator has asked each of their questions to keep the discussion moving its opened out to the floor for questions from the audience.

As far as I’m concerned panels need to serve two primary purposes:

1: Be entertaining

2: Be informative

Secondary benefits for the participants include having your profile raised by being on a panel. Your name appears on the programme and if it’s a panel on a topic related to what you write, even better; it increases your public credibility in your field. Of course, the caveat there is that if you then go on to completely mess up the panel it could achieve the opposite.

It also gives you the opportunity to be on show, and thereby enable people in the audience to discover your work. I have watched panels in the past, gone straight to the dealer room and bought the book of someone who’s impressed me on the panel. I have had several people buy my books and then get in touch for the same reason. And damn, that feels good, I can tell you!

Preparation for panels

There are some panel topics that are practically impossible to prepare for or simply don’t require it. I’ve been on a couple of New Writer panels for instance, and there’s no real need for preparation as it’s just talking about what I’ve experienced. There are some topics which are so broad in scope anything could come up, so I just have to go in with what I’ve got and hope I have something to contribute.

It’s the ones with a very specific topic that really make me anxious. I can get myself into a complete tizz thinking that I need to read a dozen books and half of the internet so I have a vague chance of speaking authoritatively. I’m at the point now where I just set aside a bit of time to think through my opinion, research a little if I need to, but then stop.

The thing is, there’s no way to tell which way the discussion will go. I used to be utterly terrified of not being able to answer a question but I know now that it’s okay; there are three other really clever people who will probably be able to have a crack at it, and that’s fine.

Here are the things I try to do on every panel:

Be truthful – there is no way in hell I could keep track of lies over the years, so I stick with this policy. If something comes up which would require revealing more than I’m comfortable with, I say that, rather than make something up.

Be aware of how much I’ve spoken – I’ve watched panels where a participant has spoken far too much. It’s not fair on the other panellists and it mostly gives the impression of a big ego and someone being too in love with their own voice. A good moderator should rein them in, but there are some personalities that are very hard to keep in check, no matter how experienced the mod might be. So I try to make sure I don’t talk too much when it’s my turn.

Look at the audience – I try to connect, no matter how terrifying that is. Whether its social media, a reading or a panel, I aim for connection with other people who love the same kind of stuff as I do.

Be open – As long as it doesn’t cross my privacy line (i.e. details about where I live or my family) I try to be as open as possible about my experiences, what I’ve screwed up and what has gone well.

Be specific where possible – One example of this was a panel on social media where I talked about the tools I use to run my sites, use Twitter etc. The kind of stuff people in the audience can write down and use later.

Not steer the conversation to my books unless absolutely necessary or specifically called for – This is something that will differ from person to person. I’ve seen panellists steer the conversation very deftly to highlight their own work and kudos to them. I simply don’t want to risk screwing it up. In the States it’s more usual to have your own books on display in front of you which is something I’d love to see introduced in the UK. In the audience I liked being able to see the book I planned to buy after the panel, and for us promotion-averse authors it just removes the agony.

Be polite and friendly – I’m sure I don’t need to explain that one! I had the rather uncomfortable experience of being on a panel about social media at Worldcon where one of the other panellists believed the exact opposite as I do about how to conduct oneself online. It placed me in a very uncomfortable position as I am the most conflict-averse person I know. But I couldn’t sit there and not challenge it. I presented my opinions calmly and as an alternative thing to try, rather than shouting “YOU’RE SO WRONG!” every two minutes. It all worked out well and we ended up having a good laugh as it got pretty predictable that I would give a counter opinion at regular intervals. But you know what? I think that was probably one of the best panels for the audience because they could see a range of opinions and approaches. They could also see that there wasn’t just one opinion, and therefore, no absolute right or wrong way to do it.

Things I still need to work on

Well, the nerves beforehand is one of them; I still haven’t found a way to escape those. The amount of time I fret before the event has shrunk from a week to two days, which is progress, but I’m still an absolute wreck before each panel. I shake, I feel sick and panicky but hell, I have an anxiety disorder so my threshold is pretty damn low.

Another thing I need to get better at is introducing myself. Some moderators do that for us, and I love that, but most ask us to introduce ourselves. It makes perfect sense but urgh, I hate doing it and I need to get over that.

If I have a reading afterwards, I need to mention it! Right at the end of course. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it – it’s very close to the whole self-promotion spectre – but I still think I should.

So there you go. Any questions about panels, things you’d like to see more of when you’re in the audience or experiences of your own to add? I’d love to hear them!

{ 2 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. John Wiswell says:

    Good basics to study for whenever I run my first panel. Good luck, Emma! Sure you’ll do well.

  2. Knock ’em dead, Em.

    Of course, not literally.

    You’d connect, certainly, especially if you used a pickaxe handle, but you might not get invited back next year.

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