HOW TO BE A MODERATOR: Insights from the World Mystery Convention

I'm moderating a panel at Bouchercon 2012, the World Mystery Convention.  To help me out, they sent me this excellent document and said "This document grew (and grew and grew) out of a series of sober discussions and drunken rants at Bouchercon 2005.  Its authors are Donna Andrews, Robin Burcell, Dana Cameron, Judy Clemens, Reed Coleman, Barry Eisler, Bill Fitzhugh, Jon Jordan, Ruth Jordan, Laura Lippman, David Montgomery, and MJ Rose.  Please post it, forward it, and otherwise disseminate it to anyone you think it would benefit."  

 Hey, that's anyone who might ever have to moderate anything.

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WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

 Relax.  Being a good
moderator is easy.  Start by
understanding your role.  Your job as
moderator is to help the panelists entertain and inform the audience.  This document will teach you how and help you
avoid a few common mistakes.

 

PREPARATION

 

1.  Do Your
Homework
. You needn’t have read all the panelists’ books to moderate their
panel (although reading the actual books is of course ideal).  But if you haven’t read their books, you will
need to spend some time on their websites, reading reviews, reading sample
chapters, and otherwise getting to know their work so you can ask intelligent
questions (even if you have read their books, you should visit their websites.  You’re likely to find additional interesting
information there).  This preparation
should take at least several hours and will be worth the effort.

 

Prepare a list of scintillating questions for your
panelists.  Here, “scintillating” means
questions that are specifically tied to the panelists’ work – questions that
are varied, insightful, and provocative (hint: 
“Where do you get your ideas?” without more is not scintillating, nor is
asking the same question of each panelist four times in a row).

 

Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need.  This way, if one line of questions isn’t
working, you can move on to something else.

 

2.  Contact Your
Panelists Beforehand
.  Let your
panelists know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them (hint:  a lot of those expectations are outlined in
this Manifesto).  Ask what they would
like to talk about (but it’s usually best not to tell them what your specific
questions will be beforehand because too much panelist preparation spoils
spontaneity).  For example:  which of their books they think you should
read or at least read about?  What were
some of the best and worse experiences they’ve recently had on panels?  What did they like style-wise in the past;
what didn’t they like?  What do they like
and not like about the topic assigned?

 

The panelists’ feedback will give you good ideas, and will
also communicate to them that you’re serious about your role and committed to
making all of you look good.

 

An unfortunate custom has developed wherein panelists bring
their books to panels and stand them up on the table for the audience to
see.  Most times, this odd gambit
fails:  the audience can’t see the book
well anyway, but the book does serve to block the audience’s view of the
panelist’s face.  Encourage those
panelists who insist on bringing books to leave them lying down on the table
and to pick them up and wave them around only once (if they must).

 

If possible, get together before the panel, at least
briefly, so everyone can get to know each other a little and the ice gets
broken before you’re in front of an audience. 
There is a green room
available in the hotel (Humphrey
Room) for your use.

 

3.  Go to Panels.  You can’t be a good moderator if you haven’t
watched a few good (and bad) ones in action. 
So go out of your way to attend some before your own gig.  See how different people moderate.  Learn what works and what doesn’t.  Improvisation, you’ll see, rarely works.  Planning and preparation do.

 

THE ROOM

 

4.  Panel Layout.
The layout of the panel is important. 
Different moderators have different preferences. Be aware of the pros
and cons.  If you sit in the middle, it
gives you equal access to the panelists left and right, but splits the panel in
half and makes it harder for the panelists to interact.  Consider sitting on one side of the
panel.  Some people even like to stand
off to the side or wander, talk show host style (there’s a reason talk show
hosts do it this way).  If you can,
consider arranging the panelist table into a V shape so the panelists can see
each other better than they will if they’re arranged in a straight line.

 

5.  Lighting and
Temperature
.  Also pay attention to
the room’s lighting and temperature.  Is
the lighting too dim, especially early in the morning or right after
lunch?  Get those lights turned up.  Is the room too warm?  Find someone who can turn up the air
conditioning (unless it’s really frigid, you needn’t worry about things being
too cold.  Cold keeps people alert and heat
makes them drowsy). There will be a
volunteer assigned to your room to help you with this.

 

6.  Bonus Points.  Make sure your panelists have water.  This might mean clearing and replacing the
used glasses from the previous panel. 
Your panelists will appreciate it. There
will be a volunteer assigned to your room to help you with this.

 

If the room is too big, encourage the audience to sit
towards the front, or in the center. 
People will comply, and the atmosphere will be better because of your
efforts.  Don’t be afraid to do
this:  audiences like their moderators
friendly and confident.

 

Hint:  to take care of
these matters, you’ll need to arrive at your room early.

 

SHOWTIME

 

7.  Who Are You?  Start by briefly
introducing yourself.  Just tell the
audience the minimum it needs for it to know why you’re moderating this
panel.  “Hello everyone, welcome to The
Bad Guy as Hero.  My name is Jane Smith,
and I write a thriller series about a contract killer named Joe Killjoy.  Killjoy certainly qualifies as a bad guy
hero, and that’s why I’m moderating today.”

 

8.  Don’t Do
Introductions
.  Or rather, don’t do
them as introductions.  Introductions are to moderating what
exposition is to novels:  necessary
information that, if presented straightforwardly, is invariably boring.  Instead, weave your introduction into your
questions:  “Lee Child, you write a
series about an ex-military cop named Jack Reacher who’s got terrific
investigative skills.  He uses those
skills to solve problems, which sounds like a formula for mystery.  And yet your books read more like thrillers.  How do you see your books?  Are they mysteries, thrillers, or both?”  (This was in fact David Montgomery’s
introductory question on the thriller panel at Bouchercon 2005).

 

At the outset, look around to ensure the audience can
hear.  If at any time you have doubts,
ask, “Can everyone hear?”  Get your
panelists to talk closer to the mike if it’s necessary.  It often is. 
And it might be necessary for you, too.

 

9.  Depart from
Your Script
.  Realize your script,
your prepared questions, is only a guideline. 
Ideally, your questions will provoke the panelists to riff on each
other’s responses.  When this happens,
you won’t have time to get to all the questions you prepared.  Recognize that this is a good thing.  Forget the prepared questions and use the
material that emerges during the panel to get the panelists to interact.

 

Interject if a panelist is faltering.  Fade into the background when the panel is
humming along without you. 

 

Some panelists are Chatty Kathies; others are shrinking
violets.  Intervene as necessary to
ensure the panelists are getting equal airtime.

 

Pay attention to the audience throughout.  Learn to look for glazed eyes, stupefied
expressions, nodding heads, fidgety bottoms, and bodies heading for the
exits.  Adjust your approach if the one
you’re using isn’t working.

 

If you’ve been blessed with good comic timing, by all means
use it.  An audience enjoys nothing more
than a laugh.  But remember to use your
wit in the service of the panel (hint: 
if your comedy routine is pre-scripted, it will probably bomb.  If you’re riffing on material that arises
spontaneously during the course of the panel, you’re probably doing it
right). 

 

10.  Be
Professional
.  You’re going to be up
there in front of a room full of people. 
It won’t hurt to dress well and to take care of any necessary
grooming.  The audience will interpret
your squared-away appearance as a sign of respect.  The opposite is also true.

 

Even if you can’t stop yourself from using “like” and “you
know” in conversation, find a way to not use them when speaking in public.  There’s no excuse for imprecision when you’re
moderating, and besides, do you really want to sound like that when you’re, you
know, in front of, like, 300 people?

 

11.  Questions From
The Audience
.  Remember to leave time
for questions from the audience.  If
you’re in a big room, not everyone will hear the questions when they’re asked,
so remember to repeat them.  If an
audience member starts to drone on, politely interrupt and ask him or her to
state a question.  Don’t be afraid to
restate for brevity and clarity.  If an
audience member asks a question that’s overly specific to a single panelist or
otherwise not particularly relevant to the concerns of the wider audience,
don’t be afraid to say, “That’s an interesting question, and perhaps better
addressed in depth by Panelist A after the wider Q&A we’re doing now.”  Warn the audience of these ground rules
before you start taking questions and things will go more smoothly.

 

A small thing:  when
repeating a question, it’s more polite, and sounds more professional, to say,
“The question is…” than it is to use a pronoun, such as, “He asked…”.

 

Audience Q&A is important and, when done well, can give
the audience a lot of satisfaction.  But
remember:  even during the Q&A, it’s
still your job to moderate.

 

FOLLOW-UP

 

12.  One More Round
of Emails
.  When it’s over, write
your panelists and thank them for doing such a great job.  Ask them if there was anything they would
have liked you to do differently so you can do a better job next time.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

If you know you’re shy or don’t present well or are
otherwise not going to do a good job, don’t take the moderator gig.  It’s not fair to the audience, to the
panelists, or to you.  There’s no shame
in declining, only in doing a poor job.

 

But here’s the great news: 
if you do a terrific job as moderator by bringing out the best in the
panelists, the audience will appreciate you. 
They’ll remember your name and buy your books.  Being a moderator is actually a great sales
opportunity – but only if you do it right.

 

This document grew
(and grew and grew) out of a series of sober discussions and drunken rants at
Bouchercon 2005.  Its authors are Donna
Andrews, Robin Burcell, Dana Cameron, Judy Clemens, Reed Coleman, Barry Eisler,
Bill Fitzhugh, Jon Jordan, Ruth Jordan, Laura Lippman, David Montgomery, and MJ
Rose.  Please post it, forward it, and
otherwise disseminate it to anyone you think would benefit.  Thank you.

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