I'm about to moderate a panel at a comic book convention. Do
you have any tips?
Loads of 'em. For the last 25 years, I've frequently found
myself in the role of Panel Moderator at events, mainly at Comic Book
Conventions. Here are some of the things I've learned...
Audiences need a clean moment for applause and you need to give it
to them. If you introduce someone as "Sam Finster, the creator of the great
comic, Sludgeface," they don't know if they're supposed to clap after the
guy's name or wait 'til the end of your speech. So instead, introduce
the person this way: "And now, the creator of the great comic, Sludgeface...here's
Mr. Sam Finster!" Putting the name at the end creates an obvious point
where applause is appropriate.
Put in a little work beforehand so you know the people you're introducing.
You should know how to pronounce their names. You should know a few
identifying facts about them — recent and prominent credits, for instance.
If they work for a company, you should know their position and be able to say,
for example, "...the assistant editorial director of Cheeseblatt Comics, Fred
Freebish." This is not just a matter of courtesy. It gets a panel
off to a limp start if you can't introduce the participants with some dignity.
Why should the audience care about the person if the moderator of the panel
didn't care enough to know who he is?
Decide in advance what the panel is about. Let's say you're assigned
to interview Lloyd Cratchlow, the artist of the comic strip, Little Morons.
Is this going to be an overview of his entire career? Is the audience
interested in what else he's done besides Little Morons? Or do
they mainly want to know how that strip came to be? Or are they maybe
most interested in the technical side, finding out what kind of pencil he
uses? Is this the kind of interview that mainly extracts biographical
info or might we want to hear Lloyd's views on the creative health of comics
in general? The panel can wind up covering any or all of these topics
and it's quite possible that the conversation will lead you into areas you did
not anticipate. But you should start with one kind of interview in mind.
It gives you a starting point.
Your first question should probably be a softball question, just to get
the conversation going and break the ice. If you're going to get into
tough ones, sneak up on them.
Avoid "What was it like?" questions. Too many interviews go
Q: You worked with Hal Ferndoc in 1958. What was he like?
A: Hal was a great guy. I really liked him.
Q: And the two of you did eight issues of Crotch Monster.
What was that like?
A: I enjoyed drawing Crotch Monster.
It's important to dig a little for anecdotes and stories. If
you have an interviewee who gives this kind of nondescript answer, you need to
beef up your questions. In this case, you might need to ask a more pointed
question about Hal. ("Some people have said Hal was a drunk who let
hookers ink his panel borders. Is there any truth to that? And what
was the real challenge in drawing Crotch Monster? Did you have a
live model modeling crotches for you?")
Listen to what everyone says and don't be afraid to ask them to expand on
something or explain it. Nothing is more frustrating for an audience
than when the interviewee says something like, "I would have done more of that
but I was in prison for three years," and the interviewer doesn't immediately
ask, "Wait a minute! Why were you in prison?"
Keep your eye on the audience. Are they restless? Are
they snoring? Or leaving? If so, maybe you've drifted into the wrong
topic. Don't be afraid to involve the audience. Ask them questions,
too. ("How many people here agree with that?")
Provide context. Often, people on a panel will tell a story without
including some nugget of information that will allow everyone in the room to
understand what they're talking about. If they do this, it's not out of
line for you to jump in and say something like, "Now, this occurred when you
were editor at Shlocko Comics, right?" If you can't follow the
story, you're probably not alone.
If you take questions from the audience, don't be afraid to edit the
question or to insist the questioner get to the point. This is sometimes
necessary when you have one of those folks who gets the floor and thinks it's a
golden opportunity to talk about himself in front of an audience. This is
one of the big reasons they need you there.
And if no one in
the audience has a question, don't beg for one and don't let there be long,
empty pauses while you wait for someone to think of something to ask. Jump in with one of your
Don't be afraid to end the panel if you feel the energy draining from the
room or the conversation getting forced. Just because someone said this
event is supposed to run from 1:00 to 2:00 doesn't mean it has to be an hour.
If around 1:40, it feels like it's over, end it...especially if someone
says something that gets a big laugh or a big ovation. It's always good
to end on a burst of excitement. I like to seize on those moments and
before the applause ends, I shout over it, "We're out of time! Please join
me in thanking..." and I give the names of the panelists, trying to time them so
that each has their moment for applause but the clapping for one doesn't die out
completely before I give the next name.
Lastly, this is something I've had to learn...and I'm embarrassed
to say I still sometimes forget: The panel is not about you. It's about
the panelists. You can personalize your questions and give your
observations and tell of your relevant experiences. But too much of you
tips the balance the wrong way and detracts from the person or persons the panel
is supposed to be about. Just keep your focus on that question — what is
this event about? — and you should be fine.