If you've been to a convention of any sort before, you know that there are good and bad panels, and that their inherent goodness or badness often has little to do with the actual content being discussed. That's because giving a panel is a skill that not everyone has. However, it is a skill that everyone could have! In this article, I'll tell you how to give a good panel on practically any subject.
Image by Shannon Cottrell
A bit about myself: I've given more than 100 panels over the years in front of audiences ranging from just three or four people to many hundreds. While I may not be The Panelist To End All Panelists, I've consistently gotten positive feedback on my panels, and I usually don't have people walking out. Also, I've had a lot of opportunity to practice and test out different techniques. I'll share with you what I've learned!
So you have a topic you'd like to give a panel on. The topic should be something you feel is appropriate for Steampunk (or the event in question), and once you've come up with a catchy title that suits your topic, write the panel coordinator (or the closest facsimile thereof you can find) at the convention and say, "Hey! I'm so-and-so, and I'd like to give a panel on so-and-so!" Generally speaking, you don't have to be a guest of the convention to give a panel, or be a panelist on other panels. As such, conventions are always looking for fun and interesting people to do panels. You may encounter a problem if you're a relative newcomer to the scene or have few credits to your name; it always helps to have someone else who is able to vouch for you. It's a good idea to tell the panel coordinator if you have other panelists lined up, or whether you intend for it to be just you, or how you envision running it. We'll talk more about how to decide this later.
However, once you've been in contact with the convention and they've approved your panel, it's time to start working on it!
There are a few different types of panels, so let me take a moment to go over them. I should also note at this time that while we "in the scene" refer to them as panels, a "panel" is technically a group of experts who talk about a given subject. Sometimes conventions will have actual panels, but sometimes they'll also have lectures, round tables, discussions, etc. We generally refer to all of those as "panels", even when they're really called something else. Let me go ahead and break all those down for you.
- Panel: As I said, you have a group of people who are experts in their fields all coming together to speak about the same topic. Panels often feature question and answer sessions, and people usually attend because they're interested in the panelists more than the subject matter.
- Lecture: A lecture is when one or more people teach a lesson. Powerpoint presentations and other teaching aids may be helpful in a lecture to help illustrate complicated points.
- Round table: Similar to a panel, round tables are usually made up of several prominent figures who discuss a specific issue. There isn't usually a point to be made, just an interesting discussion to be had.
- Discussion: A discussion is similar to a round table, but will generally involve the audience as well as the panelists. It should be noted that I've heard "discussion" and "round table" used interchangeably.
- Workshop: A workshop is a hands-on panel in which a specific skill is taught under the tutelage of an expert. This could be sewing, prop-making, etc.
- Q&A: A Q&A is exactly what it sounds like; a question and answer session. It's rare to have a full Q&A panel, as a Q&A session is usually built into most other formats. However, when a guest is especially famous or interesting, they could have a whole panel devoted to questions from the audience.
Those are the basic panel types, so when I refer to them in the future, you'll know what I'm talking about. Now that we have the very, very basics out of the way, it's time for you to start actually prepping for your panel!
In order to effectively prepare, you'll need to know what kind of panel you're giving. For example, Powerpoint presentations and outlines can work pretty well for seminars or workshops, but they fare poorly in most other forms.
That said, you want a format that will suit your teaching or speaking style. When choosing, remember that having a visual aid will sometimes distract your audience. That may or may not be what you want, depending on how uncomfortable you are being the center of attention. Additionally, it will be hard to have a panel-panel (as opposed to a lecture-panel) if you don't have anyone else to be on it with you. Just go through the above list of panel types and decide which one sounds best for your topic and your level of comfort. The right format should stand out to you, but if not, feel free to ask a friend what they think would be best.
Once you've decided, it's time to get down to the actual nitty-gritty. I've seen a lot of people make very strict outlines for themselves, but those never work for me. What invariably ends up happening is that I go through the points too quickly, and then I'm done with nothing else to say. Instead, I've found that I do best with no physical materials whatsoever so that I can't lean on them and get distracted. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable, so don't do what works for me. Do what works for you.
Image from South Park
If having an outline will make you more relaxed, use one. Being relaxed is more important than pretty much anything else you can possibly do, so seriously, do whatever you can to help yourself chill out about it.
In terms of research, do as much of it as you can. Wikipedia is a great place to start, but use it as a beginning, not an end. It's supposed to link sources: read them. If you haven't read the sources on the Wikipedia article related to your panel, what are you waiting for? The best thing to use are books on your subject of choice, as many of them as you can read, though of course it depends on your topic. If you're going to give a workshop, presumably you're already quite well-versed in the skill, but if not, go watch videos on YouTube, or read tutorials here on wonderhowto. It never hurts to see how other people do things, and workshops are so much better when you're choosing the best technique from several rather than using whatever your mom or dad taught you.
Here's something to bear in mind when preparing for panels: a convention is not a school. People go to panels because they want to learn, yes, but they also expect to be entertained. If you get up there and deliver a lecture in a dull monotone, even if the subject is fascinating you'll still likely lose some people. So if you're one of those people who needs to know every line beforehand and has to recite the lecture in front of a mirror with a stopwatch, just... stop that. I've literally never seen a panel like that be well-received at a convention. An academic conference, maybe, but not a convention.
The best way to prepare for a panel is to go over your research and formulate talking points. Brush up on specifics you may have forgotten, such as names, dates, etc. You can even make a little cheat sheet for yourself with important names and dates on them, but once you're actually in there, standing in front of the audience... Well, I'll get into that in the next section.
Needless to say, if you're on a panel where you're only going to be required to tell personal anecdotes or share your opinions, I don't know why you're even reading this article. Anyone can do that.
So here's a nice little preparation checklist for you:
- More research
- Make a short outline on paper or in your head
- Make visual aids only if necessary
That's it. Seriously, that's all you need to do. Research is the absolute most important thing because if you know your stuff, you'll find plenty to talk about. The rest of it really comes down to how you present your information, which leads us to the next section...
The real trick to being a good panelist or speaker is to be relaxed. I've seen normally funny, entertaining people just totally fall apart in front of a crowd because they freeze up. Even if you talk total nonsense, if you do it in a relaxed, friendly manner, it won't be an utter disaster of a panel. Things that alienate your audience and undermine your credibility are:
- Talking in a boring monotone
- Falling over your words
- Long stretches of silence
- Verbal tics like "um" and "uh"
As you may have noticed, nearly all of those things can be fixed simply by relaxing. That's why I put so much emphasis on chilling out; it really does make a huge difference!
Now, that said, obviously there's more to it than that. Earlier, I was talking about not writing a whole speech and I'd like to elaborate on why you shouldn't do that. As I said, conventions aren't schools. Attendees don't sit in panels with notepads taking notes (well, mostly not), so if you ask them to wait until the end for questions, they'll probably forget them. That's why I like to allow questions to be asked throughout my panels, provided that it's an appropriate forum for such things. If I'm hosting a panel with famous people, I'll ask the audience to hold their questions until the appropriate time, but that's because their questions likely aren't time-sensitive. For example, some people will wait years to be able to ask William Shatner what it was like to sit in the captain's chair. If I'm talking about Sherlock Holmes as a metaphor for industrialization, they'll likely forget whatever their question was when I move on to my next point.
Image from Journal of Victorian Culture
Not having a fully-written speech prepared allows me the flexibility to answer questions on the fly, and to tailor my presentation to incorporate audience interest. I've found that the audience usually prefers that, because it gives them a feeling of engagement when they realize that the panel is a two-way exchange rather than a passive absorption experience. And an engaged audience member is a happy audience member.
A word on digression: As I said, I can tailor my panels on the fly to incorporate audience interest. However, that's a really, really fine line to walk. You have to have a pretty sensitive grasp on the "feel" of the room in order to do that, because while some people may be interested in whatever tangentially-related story you want to tell, there are likely plenty of other people who are only in the panel room because they want to hear about the scheduled topic. The best panels walk that fine line between the two; they digress into areas that are truly interesting to their particular audience, but also don't neglect the original subject matter. I wish I could give you a specific guideline for how to do that, but it really is more of a feeling than anything else. Look at the audience: are they engaged? Are they looking at you, or looking elsewhere? Are they talking amongst themselves? Do they laugh when you make jokes? These are all indicators for the "feel" of a room.
A word on jokes: Jokes are great. Everyone loves jokes, but jokes are also a fine line to walk in a room full of people you don't know. It can only take one bad joke to offend a huge group of people, and I should know! Seriously, though, if you wouldn't tell your mom a joke, you probably shouldn't tell a room of strangers, no matter how funny you think it is. Also, as a general rule you want to make jokes, but not tell jokes. For example, a knock-knock joke will be hard to smoothly work into the conversation, but you can always say something like, "I always thought Edison lived in Washington, D.C." when his name comes up. Okay, I know, that was a pretty bad joke, but I'm sure plenty of people at a Steampunk convention would get it. You get the idea.
Here's another piece of advice: SPEAK INTO THE MICROPHONE. I can't emphasize that enough. Speak into the microphone. Speak. Into. The. Microphone. Nothing screams "I am not a professional" like mumbles that no one can hear. I can't tell you how many times I've had to tell people to speak into the microphone during panels, especially among those who should know better. And if you don't have a microphone, speak up! I know that it's tempting to forget this when talking, but do whatever it takes to remember. I like to hold the microphone in my hand when talking, even if it has a little stand. It just gives me more control, since I like to pace a little bit while talking, or move my head around.
Oh, and let me tell you what's frustrating as hell to the audience: panelists who make jokes amongst themselves but don't talk loudly enough for the audience to hear. That's just the worst thing, so don't ever do it. Promise me, okay?
I've covered a lot of things, so let me break it down into a list for you. Here's what you need to do when giving a panel:
- Make jokes, don't tell jokes.
- "Feel" the room. Figuratively, not literally.
- Speak into the microphone.
- Cover the subject matter.
Notice how "cover the subject matter" is the last one. Often, people are so obsessed with that one that they lose sight of all of the others. Don't be one of those people.
If you follow those guidelines, it'll help you on pretty much any panel. Personally, I've found that the absolute best panels involve two to four people who have either particularly good or particularly bad chemistry. Joking and laughing with your friends is always enjoyable for others to watch (provided you don't make inside jokes... never do that), and likewise, seeing panelists genuinely argue with each other is enthralling. I've seen people walk into a panel room with no plan whatsoever and still captivate audiences by sheer force of personality.
Image by Jessica Lilley
What you should take away from this article is that it's incredibly important to both entertain and inform your audience, and if you have to pick only one, it's probably better to err on the side of entertaining. If people have questions after the panel is over, they can always approach you and ask.
Similarly, I hope you've enjoyed this long, rambly article on panels, and if you have any questions, you can ask them in the comments below!