Friday, July 20, 2012

Panel deportment and demeanor

It occurred to me, particularly after reading Nancy Jane Moore's comment on my Post Readercon report, that for most of us, signing up for and appearing on panels usually entails only a limited amount of reflection. Would it be correct to say that the only thing most people who sign up for particular panels are sure of is that they have (or might have) something to say about the proposed topic? And that that certainty is the only criterion they have for participation? And is it also true that most people sit down in front of an audience first and foremost with the purpose of talking on that subject and with the confidence (whether warranted or not) that the audience (if not the other panelists) will be interested in hearing them speak?

Speaking to the subject of the panel is, after all, what they as panelists are there to do. But it's not really just that simple, is it. Panelists are there to engage in a collective communication-- with fellow panelists, and with the audience (even when the audience isn't speaking). When you start to think about it, it's a difficult form of communication to describe. Unless, of course, you think of each panelist as present in isolation from all the others, relating singly to the audience. But what sort of experience would that be for the audience? Three or four or five different speakers, performing intermittently, like university lecturers taking turns addressing a class of students? That's not my idea of a panel.

Presuming that's not a correct description of what a panel is, let's ask ourselves just what the appropriate description for the kind of communication that panelists should be engaging in is. Andrea Hairston, in her second comment to the post, used the word "conversation." When I'm moderating a panel, I definitely think of the discussion as a conversation-- among panelists, and between the audience and the entire panel. The character of a panel discussion is significantly different when audience participation is allowed or encouraged early in the panel rather than late. (I've moderated both kinds of panels, and both are legitimate, since verbal participation by the audience, while usually desirable, is not always necessary for creating a worthwhile experience for all.) Since Readercon panels last for only 50 minutes (as opposed to WisCon's eighty minutes), it's not surprising that quite a few panels at Readercon don't allow the audience into the conversation until very near the end (if at all). This is always fine with me, as an audience member, if the panelists have interesting things to say and are engaging in genuine conversation (rather than holding forth to the audience without bothering to engage with one another).

Did you catch that I just used the expression "holding forth"? I'm sure that just about everyone reading this post will know what I mean. The problem with seeing one's purpose on a panel as primarily that of speaking--"sharing" insights or regurgitating something recently read that relates to the subject--is that it turns panelists into lecturers. Speaking for myself, I've often found that the thinking, reading, and note-taking I've done in preparation for a panel may often have nothing to do with what the other panelists are talking about. So what does a responsible panelist do? Wait one's turn and hold forth? Many do. But that's not my idea of participating in a discussion. Even when I'm the moderator of the panel, I try to take my cue from the other panelists--and sometimes the audience-- and am prepared, when necessary, to abandon my preparation and go with the flow. (I.e., as a moderator or leader of a panel, my priority is to foster and organize as best I can an engaged discussion, a priority above that of setting an agenda for the discussion. I do, of course, start out setting an agenda, particularly when it's a panel I've proposed myself, but I'm always prepared to abandon it when I can see its either unintelligible or uninteresting to the other panelists.)

There are some problems, though, in thinking of panel discussion as conversation. A panel discussion can actually become too casual and informal, encouraging certain types of people to blather on uninhibited in ways that in a more informal setting could easily be headed off by the speaker's interlocutors. Informality can encourage a loss of consciousness that you're demanding attention from a large group of people who have no way of using the usual gambits interlocutors can use in conversations involving less than, say, six people. Informality can also contribute to panelists ignoring the cues of the moderator. Even worse, I've seen panelists actually lose it when stopped mid-flow--completely oblivious to the fact that the tangent they've gone off on may not be of interest to anyone else in the room. When there's an audience, cutting off someone whose gone on and on and on can be fraught, even if everyone else in the room is just waiting for that person to stop.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that people ought not to agree to be on a panel unless at least one or two of the other panelists are people they're interested in hearing talk and interested in engaging with? It might well be that mere interest in and knowledgeability about the topic are not  sufficient reasons for being on a panel. (They are obviously necessary reasons.) Perhaps all of us who participate in programming need to have the sense, going into a panel, that we're interested in hearing what the other panelists (or most of the other panelists) will have to say.

I strikes me that when serving on a panel we need to start from an attitude of respect for the panelists (and audience--which is something good writers will presumably already have, since you can't really be a good writer without presuming your readers are smart and perceptive), and a desire to hear what they're going to say, and of course the hope that the other panelists will be as interested in engaging with what you have to say as you are with what they have to say.

Does that sound utopian? I don't really think it is, since I've seen the difference these attitudes can make to panels I've been on. (The Imagining Radical Democracy panel at the last WisCon was a perfect example of that. I found it an electrifying experience. And I was not alone in that.) I feel pretty confident that much of the insensitive behavior of panelists at cons is a result of a particular panelist coming into the panel with a predetermined lack of interest in what the other panelists might have to say and regarding all the time on the panel when they're not talking as wasted, boring moments to be waited out.

WisCon-- and probably many other cons as well-- offers guidelines (and even a little course) on effective moderation of panels. Everyone considers panel behavior to be obvious. I wonder. Perhaps we ought to have a primer for prospective panelists. Not just on etiquette (though that would be a start, particularly in educating the clueless about what their relationship to the moderator ought to be), but also on purpose and attitude.    


Rose Fox said...

Thank you so much for this! I've been thinking about how to write up "how to moderate/lead panels" and "how to be a panelist" guides for Readercon, and for the latter I will definitely be pointing to this post.

Rose Fox

Marilynn Byerly said...

When I'm named a panel moderator, I try to firm up what the panel is about from the usually vague description given by the con organizers. I do some reading on the subject, make some general notes about it, and make a list of author names or whatever to have on hand in case of brain freeze.

If I get the topic and the panelists before the con, I try to contact the panelists by email and ask for their impute on the topic and how they want to handle it.

If I can't do this, I talk quietly with the panelists before the panel begins to get some sense of what they want to talk about.

I usually begin with each panelist giving a brief introduction to themselves and allow them to show their newest book for a bit of promo.

Then, I will ask a general question about the topic, and the panelists will take turns answering it.

Usually, after a few questions, the panelists will loosen up enough to turn the panel into a general conversation on the subject, and I rarely have to get the subject back on track.

After the panelists loosen up, the audience begins too, as well, and they are ready to join the conversation toward the end of the panel.

As a long-time guest at a few cons, I am also not above going out in the hall to tell a bunch of raucous fans to take their noise elsewhere or bullying a con worker to get water for the panelists.

As a panelist, I try to do the same amount of research as I do as a moderator and, again, I have general notes and examples written.

On more than one occasion, I've been put onto a panel on a subject I know almost nothing about. The panel on alternate history with Harry Turtledove comes to mind. The con organizers assumed because one of my books had the word "time" in the title I wrote it when, in fact, it was about reincarnation. I frankly admitted I didn't write alternate history when I was introduced but said I was more than eager to ask questions of the panel on the subject. And I did.

It's good to remember that some panels are really about showcasing the big author, not the other, not so known authors. The audience wants to hear Jim Butcher talk about Harry Dresden, not me pontificating on urban fantasy, so I act like a well-informed fangirl and ask him questions.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

While I agree with everything you've said in this post, and try to do much the same thing when I'm on panels, especially as the moderator, I do think this is a very idealistic standard. At the average con, most of the professionals -- writers, editors, publishers, agents, artists -- are on panels to promote their work and increase their visibility. I don't think either they or the con planners take the panels as seriously as you do.

WisCon is a clear exception, even though not all WisCon panels go well. I've had good experiences at other cons, but while good moderation helps, a lot of the good panels were the result of serendipity. (I do credit several cons with picking good moderators for sensitive subjects, such as diversity issues.)

The Imagining Radical Democracy panel at Wiscon was outstanding. I'm aware that you all set up that panel in advance with specific people in mind. I think it would be good to do other panels on complex topics that way, using panelists who had spent a lot of time on the subjects and who were willing to work together in advance.

I don't want every panel to be like that because I have met many interesting people by doing panels with them. And I think it's good for moderators and panelists to cultivate the skills of listening to each other and the audience and reading what is going on during the panel.

I was on two panels at WisCon this year. One, on the science behind sex differences in the brain, was excellent. All the panelists brought work -- and good reading lists and thought -- to the subject, and the audience was very receptive, with good ideas of their own and good questions. I had anticipated some potential conflict, but there seemed to be widespread agreement about some of the flaws in the science and the dangers of this to society.

The other panel, however, was very unsuccessful. From our emails in advance, I thought we brought compatible ideas to the discussion and I was looking forward to hearing ideas from some of my fellow panelists. However, it never felt like we were having a discussion and our ideas were so far apart that it was difficult to find common ground. More planning might have given us something more to go on, but I'm not sure it would have saved this particular panel.

However, several people from the panel and the audience have been chewing over the ideas since then, and the failure may lead to a better panel in the future. Although I think a couple of the panelists really magnified the problem because of their desire to hold forth without listening, I suspect the problem was that the subject was more difficult to address and had more points of view than any of us had expected.

I suspect that even with the best will and attitudes possible, some panels will fail. The question then is what do we do about it -- assume it was just a lousy panel or figure out what to do to improve it in the future. On important topics, I hope most of us will choose to work on the problem.