Voice Actor. Author. Alien. Human

Surviving Your First Conference Panel

I have this habit where when I go see something, I want to do it.  Every time I go see a concert, I end up working on that particular skill for the next week (I see Trace Bundy and I start working on my guitar tapping, for example).  When I see movies about ninjas, I spend the next week fighting people on the streets and doing backflips over objects.  It’s just a natural thing for me.

So it should have come as no surprise that after the Life, the Universe, and Everything conference in early 2012, I found myself leading a panel in front of hundreds at the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in America four months later.  Because why the f**k not?

Thank god it wasn’t a panel about writing, because lord knows I’m not equipped to talk to anyone about that.  I actually ended up on four separate panels about writing realistic militaries into fiction environments, not because I’m incredible at doing it but because I have a solid amount of actual, no-kidding military experience.

As we approach WORLDCON 2013, I wanted to take the time and give a few pieces of advice to any n00bs that might be in the same position as I was last year.  I’m not an expert, but I learned a lot in those four panels.  Most of life’s problems can be reduced to bullet statements, so here it goes.   I’ll make another post about what I learned about leading a panel another time – this is really just for survival.

Be an expert.  This, not your personality or your dashing good looks, is the reason you’re on the panel.  Offer good, concise, understandable expertise and advice to the audience.  You might be a big name that they’re just coming to see so they can tell all their friends they saw you, but probably not.  You’ve somehow managed to convince the con planners that you have something to contribute to this program to make it better – utilize that knowledge and give people bits of information that can only come from someone in your position.  I never gave the advice “Here’s a f***ing gem for you:  people die in war.”  I gave advice like “Here’s how the culture of the real military deals with the division between enlisted and officers.”  When someone asked me a question I didn’t know, I didn’t BS – I told them I didn’t know.

One note on the above:  make sure you read the description of the panel you are volunteering for.  I made the mistake of misinterpreting the descriptions of one of the panels and ended up on one talking about the space shuttle because I thought they wanted to talk about military aircraft capability.  (It turns out the alphanumeric codes of the aircraft were mislabeled in the description – there is a huge difference between the C-130 and KC-135 and the NASA C-130 and KC-135). 

Be professional.  Don’t interrupt people and don’t belittle people for not knowing things.  You’re probably on a panel of 3-5 guests, all who have unique experience and knowledge sets.  If you have additional information, offer it.  In fact, if you’re really suave you’ll do some research on the other panelists beforehand – nothing makes you look cooler than saying “Hey, Bill, I read somewhere that you killed JFK.  How does that experience help you answer this question from the audience?”

Be witty and funny and charming, yes, of course.  But don’t make that the focus of your presence on the panel.  If you’re only there for comic relief or don’t know when to throttle back your jokes – and believe me, people in the audience can tell when you’re just trying to bring the attention back to you with a joke because you have nothing else to contribute – then you might be on your last panel.

And, holy shit, don’t plug plug plug plug plug your book, especially if it’s not related to the topic.  If you can’t think of any other example in literature other than your own work where someone does something related to your panel’s topic, you’re not reading enough.

Be yourself.  Because this wouldn’t be an advice post if I didn’t write something incredibly trite and cliché, like “be yourself.”  Really, though, this is important.  The combination of personality and expertise is what got you here in the first place.  This isn’t a proving ground where people will judge you based on your performance; people have already come here believing, for better or worse, that the con planners have hand-picked the speakers.  It’s a great audience to be in front of - rarely hostile and most often a little starry-eyed, since psychologically you are in the position of power/knowledge and they are in the position of student.  You can relax.  Seriously, take a breath and don’t be afraid to offer information .

I’ve been to a couple of panels where there’s that one guy that says absolutely nothing and looks as if he knows something that everyone else doesn’t – like he knows where all the bodies are.  It’s just creepy.  Don’t be that guy…and if being yourself means you’re that guy, then you probably shouldn’t be on a panel.  Unless the panels is about where the bodies are.  In which case I don’t want to be at that conference.

Those are just three basic tips.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, but give me a break, I’ve only been to one conference.  It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, but it’s a whole lot of fun once you get into it.

I won’t be at WORLDCON this year, but good luck and have fun to everyone that’s going.  If you’re up for a Hugo award, best of luck…wait – if you’re up for a Hugo, why the hell are you reading my blog?


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