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Guidance for Moderators

If you’re new to moderating panels it might seem daunting; you are taking responsibility for chairing a dynamic, entertaining discussion amongst a group of people you may never have met, about some esoteric topic you had no part in choosing. Scary!

At BristolCon we give people a head start by inviting them to tell us which panels on our shortlist they’d be willing to moderate, so hopefully if you’re looking through the programme in the weeks before the con and you find your name has the (Mod) tag next to it, it’ll be a pleasant feeling and not the sinking stomach-stone of dread.

Still, here are a few tips for running a really good panel:

  • Do some research on the subject and the panelists who’ll be appearing alongside you. Pick out something interesting or relevant about each one, so you can mention it if they forget to. If you’re not really sure what the panel description is all about, contact us (programme[at]bristolcon[dot]org or @bristolcon) and talk it through with us.
  • Prepare some questions that you think will get the most out of the topic. Have a couple more questions than you think you’ll need – the conversation is bound to take a few twists and turns. Email your panelists with your two or three opening questions, and ask them if there’s anything they’d especially like to discuss, or even anything they would like to hear about from one of the other panelists. Don’t spend ages thrashing out the topic though; you want to keep the conversation fresh on the day!
  • If you can, arrange to meet them before the panel and spend a few minutes making sure everyone is ok. You may have a panelist who hasn’t done this before, and a bit of reassurance can go a long way. We don’t have a green room at BristolCon, but the convention bar is not usually too noisy.
  • When the panel begins, remind the audience that the time for Q&A will come at the end, then get your panelists to introduce themselves before you ask your first question.
  • This should go without saying, but unfortunately some moderators do a bad job: make sure all your panelists have the same opportunities to speak. Some people are naturally self-confident and verbose, and may need to be encouraged to stop talking. Others are shy and need coaxing to contribute – it’s your job to bring balance. That said, don’t stick rigidly to expecting every panelist to answer every point. It’s OK to move on to the next thing.
  • Don’t give in to the temptation to do anything other than ask questions. If you have a great point to make, or you need to say something because all your panelists have dried up, keep it brief and make sure it’s got a question attached to it. Your role is to make them look good.
  • Throughout the panel, keep your eye out for hands going up in the audience, and make sure you survey the whole room. Like a bartender, you need to make sure nobody’s kept waiting while others push in front.
  • If you’re not getting any questions, don’t dither and don’t berate the audience for their lack of engagement. Ask another question yourself and try again later.
  • Harsh as it may seem, make sure the audience understands they are not on the panel. When you open the Q&A, you might want to remind them that the floor is open for questions, not anecdotes. If there’s someone in the audience who is eminent and interesting, you can always invite them to say more.
  • Start and finish on time. Your friendly convention staff will love you for it, as will whoever’s doing the next item. You should get a five-minute warning from the floor.

There’s one important tip I haven’t put on the list and that’s to enjoy yourself! I didn’t give it a bullet point because it’s not an instruction you can simply follow, especially if you’re nervous, but do keep it in mind. Moderating a panel is a great opportunity to spend time with interesting folks being interesting. Which is what we all come to conventions for, right?

Thoughts, questions or tips of your own? Please do comment below; we love to hear what you think.

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