Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Moderating for Control Freaks

by Holly West

A little birdie told me that the panel assignments for the upcoming Bouchercon in Raleigh have been sent out. Though it's not yet time to announce the specifics of any panel assignments, no doubt some of my friends are on panels, either as participants or moderators, some of you for the first time. I'm looking forward to seeing the finalized schedule.

In the last few years, I've been fortunate enough to appear on a variety of panels. To be honest, I prefer moderating to simply being on a panel because I'm a control freak. Though it requires a bit more preparation, dictating the pace and topics discussed makes the panel more interesting for me and keeps my anxiety at bay.

So with that said, this week, I thought I'd share the introductory letter I usually send to my panelists:

Hello All,
My name is Holly West and I'll be moderating the panel, <Insert Title Here>. To help me prepare, please send me the following, ASAP:
--A brief bio
--The title of the book you'd like me to read and focus on for the panel
If there is any particular topic with regard to your books or yourself you'd like me to touch upon, please let me know. I can't guarantee it will make it into the panel, but I'll do my best.
In the coming weeks, I'll be reading your books and preparing the questions for our panel. To help *you* prepare, I'll be sending everyone a sampling of the questions I plan to ask, likely around <insert date here>.
I look forward to meeting you all. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Short and sweet, but it allows me the space to shape the panel any way I like.

Two suggestions for all of you who are participating on panels but not moderating: Offer to send the moderator a copy (either physical or ebook) of the book you'd like them to read and most importantly, thank your moderator after the panel is finished.

I wrote an expanded article on this topic for the upcoming issue of MWA's newsletter, The Third Degree, so if you're a member, keep an eye out.


Kristi said...

I can't imagine being a moderator without having read my panelists books, but I know it happens.
I'll take you as a moderator any day, Holly!

Dana King said...

I'm with both of you: a moderator who hasn't read at least one of each panelist's books isn't properly prepared. I make it a habit to read one of each panelist's books when I'm on a panel, for a couple of reasons. First, I've found several authors whose work I enjoy, my original premise being if we're on a panel together, there must be something our writing has in common. It's also a way I might be able to tee up another panelist for an answer, or to drop a free plug in for their book. ("Good point, Bob, and I loved how you pulled that off in A DARK PLACE IN VEGAS.")

Kristopher said...

One shouldn't agree to be a moderator without also knowing they are agreeing to read the books of the panelist. A panel can not be successful if the "leader" of the discussion is not familiar with the people he/she is trying to discuss things with.

That said, far too many folks fail to read the books and as an audience member at countless (at least hundreds) of panels, I can tell you that it is noticeable. I think that I have bought the books of well-prepared moderators at least as often as I have those of the panelists who interest me.

Here is my post on panels - how moderators, panelists, AND the audience should behave. This is part of my Countdown to Bouchercon series from last year.

Holly West said...

Kristi--I'd love to moderate a panel with you on it! Someday.

Dana--you've given me an idea. I'm going to send an email to all my panelists informing of them of the books I'm reading for each of them. Maybe that will encourage them to read each other's books. I've typically discovered authors by being on panels with them (as a non-moderator), but I usually don't read those books until after the panel.

Kristopher--Thanks for the link. I pretty much agree with everything you've said here and value your opinion on the subject (not just because we agree). ;-)

Lori Rader-Day said...

I'm sure reading the books of your panelists is a great way to know their work better. That being said? I don't always have time to do so. In fact, the panel we were on at Left Coast together, Holly---I didn't real the panelists' books. I think we had a terrific panel and time, anyway. It's possible, is all I'm saying.

Kristopher said...

You are right, Lori, it is possible for a panel to be successful without the moderator having read the books. But I don't think it is typical and it really also depends on what the topic of the panel is.

I guess I'm talking more about moderators who come in thinking it is a self-promotion role and not one of guidance over the whole event.

I have moderated panels where I was saved only because I had read the books. It's often impossible to determine how many questions to prepare and I just feel more comfortable knowing that I can always harken back to the books if I need to extend the session beyond what I have prepared.

Research on the panelists can do a similar type thing, but I guess I just feel that too often a moderator doesn't do enough prep work. But this is coming from one who often chooses what panels to attend based on the moderator as much as on the topic at hand.

Kristopher said...

And I course I say all of this knowing that I now have 4 more books I have to find time to squeeze in before October - because I must practice what I preach.

Holly West said...

I will only say that there is more than one way to approach panel moderation. And Lori, I agree, our panel at LCC was great! (although you're dead to me now that I know you didn't read my book to prepare).

Lori Rader-Day said...

Ouch. I get asked to moderate a lot and up until recently, I just didn't have the time to commit to reading four books for one hour's chat, especially when the moderator's role is to let the authors shine--in person, not on the page. I hate panels where the questions are devised to make sure everyone in the room knows the moderator read all the books and understands them on a level more deeply than even the author. Have you seen a panel like that? Oh, I have.

That being said, I read the books when it's the comference's state policy that you must (Malice)---but it's a lot to ask of someone. The fact is that I like to do it, so I make sure it works, either way.

Kristopher said...

I think as long as everyone goes in wanting the best for the audience, that is a good place to start.

Is it only me, or does everyone feel like they always get assigned panels in which you have read none of the panelists? Let's face it, I read TONS and still that always seems to happen to me.

Lori, I have certainly seen panels go wrong in the way you describe, but I have also seen them go wrong in many other ways. If I am honest, I would say that I could count on two hands the number of truly stellar panels I have seen in ten+ years of going to conferences - and none of them would be mine. It is an art and as long as we are falling on the positive side of things, I call that a win.

Holly West said...

You make a really good point, Lori. The first few panels I moderated included questions for each individual panelist, geared specifically to their books. My intent wasn't to show off that I'd read the books, it was to highlight aspects of their work I found interesting.

I've since learned that I prefer to ask more general questions of the panel as a whole. It's easier for me and allows for a more conversational tone.

In fact, I kind of learned that from you when you moderated our panel.

Dana King said...

I’ve been on two Bouchercon panels, where each time the moderator had read my book, and I hope to get a moderator’s spot for a small conference this year to see if I like it. If I do, I plan to read one of each of their books, only if so, when I ask a question, I can tee them up to talk a little about their book in the course of answering a broader question, so they can mention their book without having to reach for it, all the while keeping staying true to the topic of the panel. If I do it right, they should get to drop in a plug seamlessly, without interrupting the general flow of the questions.

I had never read any of the authors I served with on panels in the past. (By dumb luck, one of the moderators turned out to be a good friend who had already read, and been complimentary of, my work.) So I look at it as a good way for me to broaden my horizons.

Kristopher, I'm with you in having seen panels go off the rails, but never because the moderator knew too little about the authors' work.

Kristi said...

Just to be even more difficult - if I'm on a panel I also read the other panelists books beforehand! But that's just me! : )

Dana King said...


No, that's me, too. (Not that agreeing with me makes one not difficult.)