Because I am a huge, gigantic nerd, I have saved all of my badges from every single convention I’ve ever attended, starting with IDECON II from March 14, 1981. I was badge number 8. IDECON was a one-day game convention put on by the games club of a neighboring high school. What makes me a huge, gigantic nerd as opposed to just a huge nerd is that all of these badges are lovingly taped into the endpapers of my first edition (4th Printing, May 1979) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. My geek cred knows no boundaries.
That convention badge collection reads like the famous illustration of a monkey that becomes a bigger monkey then stands up straight then becomes a Neanderthal then becomes a human—an evolution from teenaged gamer geek to middle-aged gamer/book/etc. professional in 29 easy steps over the last 30 years. A magical moment came when my two Gen Con 1995 single-day (Friday and Saturday) badges gave way to my Gen Con 1996 Staff badge, boldly emblazoned STF.
This was when I was thrust from the crowd to actually sit on panels, and even moderate a few. Thankfully, I had a big community of coworkers at TSR to give me advice, professional authors to rescue me when I started sinking while moderating my first author panel event, and still some years of trial and error followed.
Having just recently attended Steamcon, my 29th convention, and 15th as a professional, it struck me that not everyone goes in to a professional/panelist situation at a convention with the same support I had at TSR. I don’t want to put anyone at Steamcon on the hot-seat, and actually everyone there was pretty cool, but there have been conventions over the years where I’ve sat there thinking, “What is this guy’s deal?”
I was on a panel once with the late Chris Bunch, a big time SF author and an even bigger personality, horrified by the stream of obscenities he let loose on a book fair crowd. Somehow it worked for Chris, but . . .
Years later I attended a World Science Fiction Convention and was in the audience at a panel of editors when a cell phone went off—already a no-no—but it turns out the offending device belonged to one of the panelists, a well-known veteran editor from one of the major New York SF publishers. I won’t cause him to pass on my own future books by mentioning his name here, but the guy actually took the call, turning his back on the assembled convention-goers and chatting for a few minutes while we, and his fellow panelists, looked on with a mix of perplexed horror and righteous irritation.
Those two instances may seem like obvious faux pas, something no one would ever do, but in the interest of better convention experiences for all, I asked a few friends to help me provide some simple dos and don’ts for the professional conventioneer.
Show up on time and be ready for action
Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering®, the first trading card game, doesn’t quite remember his first convention as a panelist, but thought it might have been, “Radcon 1994. I was at Gen Con 1993, but I doubt I was on any panels. Radcon was a small local convention (I was teaching at Whitman College) and I remember running some events there and I was also on some panels. I remember they had irradiated marbles as give-aways.” He’s been to between fifty and a hundred since then and cautions pros not to “show up just as the panel is ending. I have done that once this year already. Check your scheduled time and give yourself time to find the room if you aren’t familiar with the convention’s layout!”
Those maps in the convention programs aren’t just for the fans. If you volunteered to be at a certain place at a certain time, be at the right place at the right time. Convention staff will generally ask you to be at your room, or a convention green room, 5-15 minutes before your panel begins and ask that you start bringing the discussion to a close the same 5-15 minutes before the next seminar begins. Be respectful of the con’s carefully crafted and infinitely fragile schedule. When it’s time to start, start. When it’s time to stop, stop.
You don’t have to wear a tuxedo or formal gown, or even a suit, but be clean and tidy and generally “business casual” in appearance, and unless you’re speaking at the Adult Entertainment Expo or other professional events with no kids present (trade shows like E3, for instance), assume that not everyone in your audience is eighteen or over.
Be appropriate for family audiences in appearance, language, behavior, and visuals. If you have concerns about the material you might be covering, talk with the convention’s programming staff as soon as possible—they might be inclined to attach something to the schedule booklet to indicate that your presentation is recommended for mature audiences.
And when you get there, as Richard Garfield advises, “Make sure you have paper and a writing utensil when you have fellow panelists. Comments will strike you as they’re talking. You don’t want to derail them, but by the time you get a chance to step back in you may have forgotten the point you wanted to make.”
Know and prepare for the topic
If you’re on a panel discussing trends in e-book formats, for instance, please actually have something to say on that topic before you arrive. If you’ve found yourself assigned to a panel you don’t think is appropriate to your areas of expertise, inform the convention programming staff of your concerns as soon as possible.
James Minz, Senior Editor at Baen Books, has attended over a hundred conventions since Wiscon 18 in March 1994 and offers this advice: “Rather than just volunteering for programming, suggest a panel or two or three, ideally on topics right for you, and even better if you can include other people you know personally who are attending the con, would be appropriate for the panel, and would be happy to do the panel with you. Make the programmers’ lives easier with your volunteering, rather than putting the onus entirely on them to find a space for you.”
And again, a little prep goes a long way. “Even in panels which are largely question answer,” Richard Garfield told me, “at least some preparation will lead to a much better panel. Jot down some notes you want to cover, some stories that would interest the listeners. I have done panels with zero preparation (I always warn the host when that is a risk), and I feel it really isn’t respectful of the participants’ time.”
Award-winning mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch has attended more than two hundred conventions over the last twenty-four or more years, and has served as a panel moderator at least once a convention. She cautions against too much preparation: “Those moderators who try to prepare ahead of time with a list of questions that everyone has vetted by e-mail have already failed at their job as moderator. The key is to have an interesting discussion, not one that’s rehearsed and planned for. And those moderators who insist the panelists write an opening statement should never be allowed to moderate again. Speaking off the top of your head is the best way to do it. Make sure everyone on the panel introduces themselves, take questions from the audience, and go from there.”
Sometimes the topic can be a little tricky. That panel I mentioned earlier on which I sat with Chris Bunch and two other authors, was on the topic of why fantasy seems to come in trilogies. I offered the opinion that The Lord of the Rings was published as a trilogy, so people just started copying that. It was kind of a reductivist stance I’m not sure I can defend, but it was all I could think of at the time. The four of us pretty much just punted and it became a discussion on writing in general, heavily weighted toward research. I have no idea how that happened, but it’s a good segue to . . .
Think on your feet
Panel discussions in particular have a habit of wandering off topic. It’s okay, actually, but try to circle back as much as you can. After all, the people in the audience showed up for that seminar on that topic, instead of going to a different event happening at the same time. Give the people what they came for—as much as possible.
Jack Emmert, COO of Cryptic Studios, has attended a dozen conventions or so over the past ten years, and agrees that a little variance from the topic at hand is okay, “if the audience seems to want it that way. But it’s when there’s an oddball who has their own axe to grind or point of view that a problem arises.”
James Minz says he’s “been known to play the Devil’s Advocate on a panel just to make it more interesting, because five people sitting around nodding and agreeing with one another can be quite boring—but either make it clear you’re being a Devils Advocate, or have a co-conspirator on the panel with whom it’s okay to pick a fight.”
That’s what I remember most about Chris Bunch—he was game for anything. But I have encountered fellow panelists who are less adaptable. Keep your eyes and ears open and do your best to get a sense of the room, which includes the rest of the panel.
“How far to stray will depend on the audience and its interests,” said Richard Garfield. “If the panelists are wandering off target I am usually happy to let them wander, especially if they are having a dialogue. I will pull them back to topic if I have more things I want to cover, but I am in no rush if they are engaged and the audience seems engaged. If questions from the audience are threatening to hijack the topic I will tell them there will be time for open questions at the end, and usually that puts an end to it. Then when the panel and audience have run their course on the topic I will open the floor to general questions.”
Manage the audience
Like me—like all of us, I’m sure—Kris Rusch has encountered her fair share of disruptive, intrusive, or downright weird audience members. She offers the following horror story:
“Usually, I verbally shut the person down. (I’m known for speaking my mind.) Only once did I fail. That was at a Westercon. Some guy in a beanie (seriously!) thought he knew more about science fiction than Connie Willis and I. He kept calling us ‘the girls’ and patronized us. Both Connie and I were so speechless at his rude sexism that we didn’t shut him down until the end of the panel. Then she and I spent the next hour in the bar apologizing to each other for not acting sooner. Otherwise, I talk over them, tell them to be quiet, or if it gets too bad, tell them to stop talking so other people will have a chance.”
James Minz has had his share, too, of “the bossy, overbearing audience member, and there is no one way to handle it, because the situation is always fluid. If I’m merely a panelist, I do try and let the moderator take the first crack at bringing the conversation back to the panelists. If I’m moderator, or if the moderator is failing in their efforts (or, worst-case scenario, the moderator is pals with the audience member and engaging/encouraging them even when they are not on topic, or have no reasonable credentials on the topic), I start with trying to deflect and redirect with a bit of humor (not humor at the expense of the audience member—self-deprecating humor is usually the most useful). Do not engage/encourage, but you also try to not be rude. If all else fails, you can be blunt, without being rude. Just a simple ‘That’s interesting. What do you think, [name of fellow panelist, preferably one you know is ready to jump in], would you agree with that?’ That way you’re cutting them off, but involving someone else, so as to be non-confrontational. It’s not really that difficult.”
But it is necessary. Minz goes on to say that he’s been “on hundreds of panels, and there’s only been one occasion where a moderator finally just had to tell the person point blank, ‘Listen, the people in this audience came to hear the panelists speak on this topic. We appreciate your input, but it’s time to give the audience what they came here for.’ They were actually much more restrained than I would’ve been, but it was very early in my career. Now I appreciate and try to emulate that kind of restraint.”
But again, keep your head on a swivel, and ride out the situation as it unfolds. Sometimes, a particularly energetic audience member can save a sagging seminar.
According to Minz, “there has been more than one occasion when the audience member had serious, intelligent things to say on the topic, and in fact had better credentials to be on the panel than I did, at which point I recommend you seriously consider inviting them up to be a panelist—though don’t let them dominate, let them contribute.”
Share the stage
I prefer panels to solo acts, myself. It’s usually easier to share the stage, having someone there to work off of, to throw to when you’re at a loss, and to feed you new questions and topics of conversation. In accordance with the Golden Rule, I try to do they same. Ask questions of the other panelists, shut up while they answer, laugh when they’re funny, and save them when they’re floundering.
“When there are multiple people on a panel,” Richard Garfield will, “always try to share around the questions, asking other panelists’ opinions when it is appropriate. It is best with a panel if there is a dialogue and some different opinions and a variety of stories rather than one panelist doing all the talking.”
But what if one of your fellow panelists goes off the deep end?
Jack Emmert has “been with people that dominate the talking so much, I might as well have not attended. Typically, I hold my tongue and just let it go. I figure it must be important to them, so I let it be.”
Kris Rusch agrees, to a point: “If they’re a panelist, I’ll sometimes suffer in silence, sometimes argue with them, and sometimes flatly tell them to shut up so that others can talk. It all depends on the situation. I’m in the position, after so many conventions, that I’m usually the most experienced person on the panel and the others will default to me if need be.”
Having served as panel moderator, Rusch maintains that the moderator’s role is “to keep the panel interesting, make sure everyone gets a chance to talk, and to shut down the panel-hogs.”
This is a good place to remember to keep that ego in check. Richard Garfield is as close as there is to a rock star in the hobby gaming community, and has experienced problems with an audience “steering the panel into an area where only one of us was a real participant. For example, on a board game panel we start getting all Magic questions. In this case I would attempt to rephrase the questions in a broader way that other panelists might have input to. For example, if I were asked about what I thought about the changes in balance to Magic over the years I would probably talk a little on that, and broaden the topic to balancing games in general and ask one of my panelists about one of their games’ balance, or how the game changed over editions.”
And don’t be afraid to disagree with your fellow panelists. Respect everyone’s voice, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated into agreeing with anyone.
According to James Minz, “If you’re on a lot of panels, you’re going to have disagreements; I’ve never taken them personally, and I sincerely hope the feeling was mutual. In general, I try and avoid being on panels that might be too inflammatory: on politics, or hot button topics, all of which I freely discuss over drinks in a bar, but try to avoid in formal, potentially recorded settings. A few sparks make for an entertaining panel, but preferably sparks with someone you already have a strong relationship with.”
And some words of wisdom from Kris Rusch: “Remember that you’re on the panel for a reason—and the reason is not to promote your books. It’s to entertain the audience. If they find you interesting, they’ll look for your work. So don’t sit there like a bump on a log. Participate. But don’t hog the panel. You’ll be the least experienced person there, so defer to the folks who have more fans in the audience. (Someday that will be you.) If someone challenges you, answer them politely. If you disagree, do so with wit and verve. If you have something important to add, do it. And enjoy yourself. Everyone else will as well.”
In other words . . .
Say what you mean and mean what you say
What was that James Minz said about panels being recorded? “Some conventions record panels and speeches, and in this day and age, many fans are recording panels and speeches right on their smart phones, etc. So if you’re on a panel, remember the mic’s always on. Once you’re in front of the audience, even if the panel hasn’t officially started, never say or do anything you don’t want the whole world to hear or see.”
New York Times best-selling author Matthew W. Stover’s first convention was the World Fantasy Convention in October of 1995, shortly before his first novel, Iron Dawn, was released. He’s had a sort of love-hate relationship with conventions since then, but in terms of what to say and what not to say, offers this advice:
“ ‘Eschew surplusage.’
“Twain’s too concise? Then Shakespeare: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’
“Or Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Spartans, stoics, heroes, saints and gods use a short and positive speech.’
“Most people will only recall three things from your speech, presentation, or panel. Don’t let two of them be how boring you are.”
You just have to have your brain set at 10 the whole time. Think before, during, and after you speak, and if you put your foot in your mouth, it’s better to apologize, turn it around with a joke, or ask for a moment to clarify. Doing that a week later on your blog will ring hollow. Doing it right then only humanizes you.
Keep your cool, and roll with it
You honestly don’t have to love conventions. In fact, there’s a lot about them to hate. Matt Stover told me he doesn’t really care for conventions, which he sees as “kind of a chore. There are writers who are naturally gregarious—especially in my end of the business, franchise fiction. A lot of media tie-in writers start as fans, hanging around these conventions. A lot of the ‘serious stylists’ start in grad school or workshops, and have their own circle of writers they trust and interact with, who read and critique each other’s scripts. I started as an out-of-work actor who had a fiancée, a cat, and an electric typewriter. When my first novel sold, the only working author I had ever met was me.
“It makes my relationship with conventions kind of . . . difficult.”
I guess all this boils down to one thing: Be prepared, mentally, for anything.
And I do mean anything.
“The funniest thing I ever encountered,” Jack Emmert told me, “is when I was running Marvel Super Hero demos for TSR back in the day. One participant was running the character Storm—who had powerful control over the weather. He wanted to shoot one of his fellow X-Men with a lightning bolt. When I said that wasn’t very heroic, the person asked, ‘Well, then can I knife him?’ ”
Richard Garfield once found himself signing Magic cards at a convention in Germany, “and there was no line just a crowd, which was so unruly I had hands sticking at me from all directions. When my handlers finally cleared out the crowd after ninety grueling minutes I saw that things were so crazy that I had actually signed half a dozen of my own cards that were lying on my table without realizing it.”
And keep your cool not just with the fans but with the convention staff as well. No convention I’ve ever been to from IDECON II onward has gone off without a hitch. There are hitches on top of hitches on top of hitches in even the best-run conventions.
“Almost all of these conventions are being run by people who are volunteering their time and effort,” James Minz reminds us. “No matter the bumps that you may encounter, remember, they could be spending their time, effort, and passion on numerous other endeavors, so appreciate that passion, and understand things may not always go smoothly at a con, because this ain’t their day job, this is what they’re doing for fun.”
And I’ll give Mr. Minz the last word with some vital advice:
“Relax, be yourself, and most important of all, to quote Cosmo Brown—Donald O’Connor’s character in Singing In The Rain—Make ’em Laugh!”
Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the just-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook (http://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/), is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.