by Terry W. Ervin II
Literary panels are a staple that many attendees look forward to when attending writers’ conferences, fantasy/SF conventions, genre-related events such as romance reader conventions, and book festivals. Usually the panel’s audience is made up of readers and/or fellow writers at various stages in their career.
If invited, or if you must apply to be selected as a panelist, take advantage of the opportunity. Serving as a panelist is a good way to meet readers and fellow authors, and to share your experiences. While entertaining, simultaneously you’ll provide background information to readers and insight for writers as they navigate trials of being an author.
Panel topics are determined by event organizers, sometimes based upon input from author guests. Genre-based events, such as fantasy/SF conventions, will have panels that cater to the interests of attendees, just as a writers’ conference is likely to have panels focused on a variety of writing-related topics.
As an author, I’ve participated on over seventy panels in various venues and covering a host of topics. Often at fantasy/SF conventions I serve on three or four over the course of the weekend event. Based on this experience, which is miniscule compared to many authors out there, I’ve organized some suggestions for authors new to the experience so that they can get the most out of being a panelist, while benefitting the attendees—the ultimate reason for the panels.
Before attending the Event:Prepare for the topic ahead of time, including a brief introduction of yourself. If the panel is on world building in a fantasy setting, make a few notes to remind yourself of maps, cultures, and histories of some commonly read authors. Maybe read or listen to some interviews (podcasts/YouTube) of those authors.
Dress appropriately. I've seen panelists show up looking like they'd slept three nights in their stained T-shirt and tattered jeans, and a comb appeared to have been a foreign object never to be touched, let alone used. Consider the con-attendees, the topic, and overall event. In general, appearing professional will prove beneficial.
Have business cards with contact information (website/email address) to share with other panelists and attendees that might talk with you afterward. It’s far more convenient than jotting emails and contact information on a piece of paper or a conference program. Special notes or information can be written on a business card’s reverse side.
Some panels provide paper tents featuring the participants’ names. If not, some authors bring a bookstand to hold one of their novels. Prepare a similar paper tent for your exhibition/sales table (if you have one and nobody watching it), letting event attendees know you’re serving on a panel and when you’ll return.
Do your homework. Know something about your fellow panelists. Being able make relevant comments referencing a fellow panelist's work is polite and demonstrates knowledge on the topic. It might even earn a few friends.
Prepare a few anecdotes relevant to the panel’s topic. If the panel is on religion in fantasy, there’s a good chance you’re participating because you have some knowledge and experience in that area. Review some novels, or even movies, that the audience would likely recognize and use the gathered information to illustrate points during the panel discussion. This will supplement answers comments and suggestions based on your personal experiences and published works.
Just Before the Panel:If possible, show up a few minutes early. Introduce yourself to the other panelists and the moderator.
Use the restroom beforehand, and have a bottle of water, pen and paper, business cards, and one of your novels (preferably one relevant to the panel topic).
During the Panel:It's okay to bring a title or two to hold up while introducing yourself, but not your entire series, going into detail of everything you've written. (Yes, I've seen panelists have to be cut off after going on about themselves and their writing for over three minutes after being asked to give the audience a brief introduction.) Twenty to thirty seconds should do.
Speak loud enough that you can be heard by all in the room. If there is a mic, use it and be sure to speak into it properly. You may believe your voice carries, but not everyone has average hearing. Plus, background noise, especially near the door/exit, can prove challenging to those attendees in the back. Maintain eye contact with the questioning individual, while shifting to the audience in general and fellow panelists as appropriate.
Smile, and listen to what others are saying. Appear interested and attentive. The audience will be watching. Plus, panels sometimes show up on Youtube. Jot down notes as you’re listening to help remember what you’d like to say if called upon, or refer back to if the opportunity presents itself.
If you're an author, it's okay to refer to your works to illustrate points. Do this, however, on a limited basis. Too much can turn the audience off to your input. The panel is not a venue to showcase your published works. Those attending the panel are there to learn while being entertained. They’re not there for author ‘infomercials.’
Answer concisely and avoid ‘hogging’ the panel. When possible, try to answer questions with information that can apply to other audience members with similar questions. Your comments will help/appeal to more people, and will reduce follow-up questions.
If you don't have something different or worthwhile to add to the current topic/question and you're your turn comes up, it's okay to say, "I agree with what ______ said about _______." and leave it at that.
Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" or “I’ve never come across that situation.” Causing panelists and those in the audience to cringe while trying to ‘fake’ knowledge on a topic is never a good thing. Chances are someone on the panel or in the audience will correct you. I’ve seen it happen. Even though ‘corrections’ are both appropriate and necessary, they’re uncomfortable for everyone involved. It is okay to say, “I don't know, but if I had to make an educated guess...” and follow up with your opinion based on observation or experience.
After the Panel:Thank other panelists and the moderator. If the opportunity presents itself, thank audience members, especially those that contributed to the discussion with thought-provoking questions.
Before departing, take a moment for audience members to follow up with questions they might have. Even so, be aware that conversations might need to be moved to the hall if another event is scheduled in the room right after your panel.
If you have panels scheduled back to back, have business cards handy for folks with questions, and let them know where they can find you later. Keep in mind that audience members might have something else scheduled right after your panel ends.
Follow up with members of the panel you exchanged business cards with and those that you found interesting. Sending an email a week or two after the convention is a reasonable timeframe.
Additional Comments:Relax and have a good time. If you’re someone that is hesitant to speak in front of people, know that this isn’t like standing up in front of a crowd all by yourself. You’ll be seated, and with fellow authors there supporting you, and in front of an audience interested in what you have to say.
About Terry W Ervin II
His most recent release coming in January of 2016 from Gryphonwood Press is RELIC HUNTED. It’s the sequel to RELIC TECH, the first novel in the science fiction Crax War Chronicles. Both novels are packed with action, adventure, aliens and even a bit of a mystery.
In addition to novels, Terry’s short stories have appeared in over a dozen anthologies, magazines and ezines. The genres range from science fiction and mystery to horror and inspirational. GENRE SHOTGUN is a collection containing all of his previously published short stories.
To contact Terry or learn more about his writing endeavors, visit his website at www.ervin-author.com and his blog, Up Around the Corner, at http://uparoundthecorner.blogspot.com