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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Writers: How to Make Your Panel Successful

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel at Murder in the Magic City (Birmingham, AL) on Saturday and moderating another panel at Murder on the Menu, a fundraiser for the Friends of the Wetumpka (AL) Library on Sunday. [See Paula's earlier post about the activities.] These were mystery fan conferences, primarily for readers rather than writers. Last November I wrote about Seven Characteristics of a Great Panel Moderator so at Murder on the Menu I needed to follow my own advice.

My preparation time was short since I only found out about the moderator assignment six days before the gig. I quickly prepared some sample questions and distributed them to the panelists, and I performed some internet research to have an idea of my panelists’ writing careers.

The panel was to run thirty-minutes and panelist descriptions were included in the program. I bent one of my rules and dispensed with any introduction other than the panelist’s names. Otherwise I followed my own advice.

I will claim that we had the best panel that day.

However, (clears throat), while my moderation seemed to work well, I discovered another important key to successful panels—one that relates also to event book sales.

Panelists who spent every opportunity hawking their book quickly became boring, both to the audience and to their fellow panelists. Those who illustrated points with quick reference to their books were much more interesting.

That wasn’t the key, however.

The audience wanted to know about the writers as people. What kind of a sense of humor did each author have? What was the author’s passion? They wanted to figure out if the author was someone they wanted to invest three or five or more hours with.

After our Murder on the Menu panel concluded, I chatted with one of my panelists, Julia Spencer-Fleming, a NY Times best-selling author. We agreed we had the best panel because we had the most interesting authors (and admittedly because we were prejudiced). I considered the Murder in the Magic City panel I had participated in the day before. It was also the best panel of the day, because Paula Benson did an excellent job as the moderator and because the panelists were most interesting.

Distilled for you for the very first time are the four secrets for authors to create an excellent panel.

1. Authors on the panel engage with each other and with the audience.

2. Authors attend to each other’s remarks.

3. No author tries to hog the discussion.

4. Authors build their points off the previous discussion, rather than acting as if they were the only one on the panel.

Not only does this make the panel discussion interesting, but here’s the other thing:

My Key Takeaway: Whether moderator or panelist, book buyers will make judgments based on the way you present yourself. If all you present is a hard sell, they won’t be impressed. They are going to buy your personality.

~ Jim

Addendum: After I wrote this blog, I was assigned as the moderator on the 2014 Left Coast Crime panel entitled, Traditional Mysteries: We Like It That Way. Along with my invitation to moderate were two documents "The Moderator's Guidelines: How to Moderate a Great Panel" and "Calamari Crime Panelist’s Help Sheet." These two pieces expand upon my advice in this blog and if you would like a copy of them, shoot me an email and I'll forward them to you.


Polly Iyer said...

I thought both you and Paula did an excellent job moderating your panels. Kudos! On the whole, though, everyone did well. Julia Spencer-Fleming and Bob Dugoni were terrific.

E. B. Davis said...

I suspect, Jim, that you were asked to moderate because of the great job you did at the previous convention. From your recommendations, I suspect that it would help for the moderator and panelist to spend a bit of time together before going in front of an audience. Getting a sense of the others' personalities, repartee, and humor would be of benefit to all. At conventions, time is precious so not sure if it's a practical method of improving a panel. Good luck at Calamari.

Jim Jackson said...


Yes, weren't Julia and Bob terrific? And I't fairly certain that Bob was there because of Paula -- not only is she a good moderator, but she's great at networking (would that I had that skill).


Well said. There is nothing like a little personal interaction to help grease the wheels.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I wish I could have been there, Jim. It sounds like a wonderful event.

I've attended many panels, and I agree with E.B. that it seems like the best panels are when the moderator and the panel members seem to know one another and established some rapport. I especially like panels where they are joking with one another while still giving serious answers to questions.

KM Rockwood said...

Great hints, Jim. I am just beginning to attend conferences, and this is a big help. It also explains why some panels are fascinating and others a bit of a bore.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Jim and Polly, thank you for your kind words. I had a wonderful time at both Murder in the Magic City and Murder on the Menu. I enjoyed seeing and spending time with each of you.

Jim, I agree, panels work best when the panelists stay engaged with each other and let the audience in on their discussion.

As a reader, I like seeing the "behind the scenes" view of authors, their interests, and their enthusiasms. If the authors are enjoying talking with each other, that telegraphs to the audience. To create that atmosphere requires thought and preparation. Your suggestions are great ways to achieve that situation.

Jim, I also agree that both your panels were terrific (even if I might be a little prejudiced in saying so)! Thanks for this blog and good luck at Left Coast Crime.

Warren Bull said...

I think a sense of humor helps too.

Shari Randall said...

Sounds like you had a great time, Paula and Jim. I've only been to a couple of conventions, but I've seen panels where the panelists and moderator could have used some of your suggestions. Good luck at Calamari!

Cher'ley said...

I would be interested in the handouts about panels. I'll be on panels and moderating both this year. Thanks