In his wrap-up of Wiscon, writer Barth Anderson said some nice things about my panel moderating skills:
I also want to take a moment to commend John “The Black Hand” Scalzi. Good panel-moderating requires a whip, and Scalzi wields hot leather from the word go. As a result, the “First-time Novelists” panel was packed with info, I thought, with very little rambling, whining – and NO chance of hijacking. My advice to Wiscon – require all moderators to take a Scalzi-run boot camp on moderating panels.
(For those of you lost at sea here: at science fiction and other writing conventions, four or five writers will sit on a panel and discuss a particular subject and take questions from the audience as well. Usually one of the panelists acts as a moderator, asking questions of other panelists, choosing which audience members get to ask a question and making sure things keep moving.)
While Barth rather modestly neglects to mention that the primary reason the panel was so good was because of the overall excellent quality of the panel participants (which aside from Barth also included Kelly Link and Virginia G. McMorrow), I will say that I agree that good moderating is key to most successful panels that I’ve seen, and that I try to be a good moderator. That means paying attention to what your fellow panelist are saying so that followup questions flow naturally, making sure each panelist gets enough microphone time and doing a fair bit of audience management. In my experience, science fiction convention panel audiences want to be actively engaged in the panel, which is good, but they sometimes also forget to do the simple things, like raise their hand for questions. Which is bad. This is why I tend to remind panel audiences at the outset that they need to raise their hands for questions, otherwise they risk my wrath.
After Wiscon (but not directly because of Wiscon, because I’ve been thinking about this for a while), I think I’m going to add another panel audience instruction to my opening statements, which is that any attempt to break out the “Not a question, more of a comment” strategy is going to get squashed under my moderating heel like a bug.
For those of you unawares of this, the “Not a question, more of a comment” gambit (hereafter acronymed to “naqmoac” — pronounced as “nackmoack”) is when an audience member temporarily and unilaterally elevates him or herself to panelist status and proceeds to blatherate at length on a subject that’s usually only nominally related to the subject matter at hand. The panel momentum comes to a standstill as the usurping audience member drones on and once they finally finish, there’s no question at the end of it, so the panelists are left there going “uh… okay,” the other audience members wonder why they had to spend five minutes of a 50-minute panel listening to this jackass, and the moderator has to cold start the panel. Have a couple of these “naqmoac attacks” in a panel, and the panel can sink without a trace. As Barth notes, it’s a hijacking, and that shouldn’t be tolerated.
So: in the future when I moderate I will tell all my panel audiences that, as in Jeopardy, comments must be phrased in the form of a question, and that any attempts to get around this will cause me to get immoderate in my moderation. If one’s comment cannot be phrased as a question — and a good, meaty and succinct question at that — then one might consider holding it until the end and then chatting with the panelist about it afterward. Also, if one actually starts a naqmoac with the phrase “Not a question…,” on a panel I moderate, with God as my witness I will interrupt and say to rephrase as a question instantly or sit down and let someone who knows how to follow the rules ask a question.
It’s not just about me being a strutting martinet, mind you. I sincerely believe that naqmoac attacks are usually unfair to everybody else at the panel: It deprives the panelists of time to make their points and to engage audience members who want to ask them questions, and it deprives audience members of their access to panelists and of the ability to follow up on the comment, since if the audience is just going to talk amongst itself, one has to wonder why there’s a panel up there at all and (also) why the Hell the moderator isn’t doing his or her job. Which is the perfect point to note that it’s unfair to the moderator too, because it leaves the moderator to clean up someone else’s mess. I concede that on a rare occasion a naqmoac might be useful, but I have to say having been at a fair number of panels now, both as panelist and as audience member, the proportion of useful naqmoacs is not nearly high enough to tolerate them in a general sense.
Anyway, that’s my plan: Death to the Naqmoac. With luck and moderating skill we can purge it from the panel dynamic and usher in a new utopian age for all humanity, or at least the portion of it that goes to science fiction writing panels. And that’ll be enough for me. For now, anyway.