Thursday, February 23, 2023

Help! I'm Moderating a Panel by Connie Berry

For the first time in my writing career, I’ve been asked to moderate a panel at Left Coast Crime 2023 in Tucson, Arizona. Not only that. My panel features four best-selling, multi-published authors who’ve won tons of awards and sold lots of books. I’m familiar with one of the writers because I’ve followed her writing for years. The others I don’t know at all, not because they’re not well-known (they are), but because they write in a genre I generally don’t read.

I’m excited and a little daunted.

How do you prepare to moderate a panel? The first thing, I imagine, is to understand the theme of the panel. I was a panelist not long ago in which the moderator, a lovely woman, misunderstood the theme and thought we were there to talk about romantic suspense. None of us wrote romantic suspense. Things went downhill from there.

To avoid that mistake, I’m doing my due diligence. The first thing I’ve done is read, or rather listen to, each of the author’s latest books. That’s been fun. I’ve also stalked them on social media and studied their websites. We’re meeting briefly the morning of the panel, which I hope will help everyone feel more comfortable (“everyone” meaning me). The best thing will be for the panelists to have fun and interact with each other and the audience. My job now is to come up with questions that will bring out their unique personalities and writing styles and satisfy what is sure to be a large audience.

That’s where I am, nineteen days out and counting.

What words of wisdom do you have for me?
Have you been on a panel that worked? How about one that didn’t?

I need all the advice I can get. 


  1. Hi Connie,

    You've already started great by getting familiar with their latest works. I have always tried to read the book they are flogging (er selling) at the convention.

    The worst panels I have been on are where the moderator either makes the panel session all about them or, nearly as bad, thinks they are one of the panelists, too.

    My approach is to do whatever I can to make the panelists shine. I know I've thoroughly succeeded when I have the panelists interacting with each other, bouncing off each others' ideas. Given whatever the panel theme, I look for things in their books that are similar or strikingly different, both of which can generate sustained conversations.

    The only time I forcefully insert myself is when it is time to move to the next topic or to rein in the rare panelist who tries to hog the podium. If one of the panelists is shyer than the others, sometimes I need to steer the conversation their way.

    I usually ask the panelists beforehand (like about now) if there is anything in particular they would like to talk about relative to the panel subject.

    Do a good job, and the panelists will sing your praises at the end (and some in the audience will even end up buying your book!).

    And have fun meeting some big names.

  2. Have fun! Laura Lippman's panel at NOLA Bouchercon in 2016 was the single best panel I've experienced. From what I remember, the panelists were all friends, and had met the evening before to plan things out. Lippman asked good, meaty, questions and the panelists took it from there. Good luck!

  3. You'll be great, Connie, no doubt about it. One of my favorite tips for moderators is to ask open-ended questions rather than questions with yes/no answers. Although sometimes a quick round of yes/no questions can vary the pace of a panel.

    Here are some other tips from a long ago Bouchercon:

    Who Are You? Briefly introducing yourself. Tell the audience the minimum they need to know about why you’re moderating the 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.”

    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 David Montgomery’s introductory question on the thriller panel at Bouchercon 2005).

    At the outset, look around to be sure 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.

    Depart from Your Script. Realize your script, your prepared questions, is only a guideline. Ideally, your questions will get the panelists riffing off each other’s responses. When this happens, you won’t have time to get to all the questions you prepared - and that's 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 a tad chatty and others shrink a bit from public speaking. Intervene as necessary to ensure the panelists are getting equal airtime.

    Pay attention to the audience. 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.

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

    Have fun!

  4. SO FAR...fabulous tips and advice!!! Keep them coming!

  5. I know you'll do great, Connie! You have the skills and the personality to bring out the best in people!