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How to be a Classy Panelist

Ok, so I’ve been on half a dozen or so panels at three separate conventions. I’ve been the new panelist nobody’s heard of and the cool Hugo-nominee panelist, and several variations that fall between those extremes. None of this makes me an expert on conventions or panels, but I have definitely noticed a couple of trends.

First: Don’t feel pressured to promote. Your best, your most valuable, and your most effective promotion lies in simply being on the panel. If there’s a convenient opening to discuss your work without derailing the conversation, then by all means make use of it, but don’t feel that you have to slip an advertisement in to make the panel worth your time.

Second: Panels ought to be fun. Try to relax and have an interesting conversation with the unique personalities sitting next to you. The more fun you have, the more fun the audience will have.

Third: Remember that the audience comes to these panels to be (a) informed and (b) entertained. The more you are able to structure your comments to meet those objectives, the more the audience will like you. And the more the audience likes you, the more likely they are to buy your work.

It’s not unusual for panelists to feel a little nervous, especially if they’ve been placed on a panel alongside authors whose books they admired as a teenager (yes, this has happened to me). Authors worry that they’ll talk too much; that they’ll talk too little; that they’ll say something stupid; that they won’t say anything at all.

Interestingly, new panelists tend to fall into two categories: Those in danger of speaking too much, and those in danger of speaking too little. Most people know instinctively which category they fall into. (If you’re not sure, ask yourself what you’re more likely to do when nervous. In unfamiliar situations, do you tend to jabber uncontrollably, or do you tend to clam up?)

For those looking with trepidation towards their first panel appearance, take heart. If you are able to converse within the bounds of normal social circles, you have the skills required to become a fabulous panelist. Building on those skills is simply a matter of practice and contemplation. Below, I’ve assembled a little food for thought, to help with the contemplation part.

For Gregarious Panelists:

1. Refrain from speaking for more than thirty seconds at a stretch, unless you have been directly asked a question by the moderator. Even then, don’t go longer than about two minutes.

2. Try to convey a single, complete thought each time you speak. Save other thoughts for later in the panel — often there’s a notepad and pen so you can write them down.

3. Notice which panelists are speaking least and attempt to throw the conversational ball to them. Ask a question about the person’s area of expertise or refer back to something they said earlier in the panel.

4. Respect the moderator.

For Reticent Panelists

1. Try to speak up about as often as everybody else. Your comments don’t have to be long, and they may consist of murmurs of agreement or questions asked of the other panelists.

2. Watch for lulls in the conversation. It’s easier to step into a lull than it is to jump into an active debate mid-stream.

3. Keep a stash of general-purpose comments in the back of your brain so you’ll have something ready to say when a lull comes along.

4. Don’t be afraid to steer the conversation towards your area of expertise. Half the secret of sounding smart on a panel lies in getting yourself on your home turf.

That’s it. I’ve found panel experiences to be a lot of fun, and a great way to meet both the other panelists and the audience members. The book industry is filled with fascinating people. Don’t let the intimidation of sitting on a panel keep you from meeting them.

cross-posted from nancyfulda.com

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