More on Moderating

Some interesting comments on my earlier post on moderating panels at science fiction conventions and how I plan to excise “not a question, more of a comment” ramblings from audience members at future panels at which I am a moderator (these interesting responses include additional comments here, at Wild Irises’ LiveJournal). Given the volume and the quality of the comments (i.e., high), I thought I’d address some of the issues that were brought up. This is my warning to you that unless you’ve read the previous post and/or care about the issue of moderating panels at science fiction conventions, this entry may well be impenetrable and deadly boring.

* One of blowbacks from people responding to the earlier piece is that it seems to be fairly harsh on panel audiences while ignoring the sins of panelists who derail panels from their subjects as frequently if not more so than audience members. I plead guilty as charged to this for the simple reason that I was not trying to encompass the entire role of a panel moderator in the earlier piece, I was focusing on a single aspect of it — in this case, how rambly audience members who don’t have a point when they raise their hands annoy me, and one strategy I plan to use in the future to avoid rambly pointlessness on their part. Rest assured, dear readers, I also have strategies to avoid rambly pointlessness on the part of panelists as well, but that’s the subject of another entry entirely.

However, I will certainly agree that panelists can benefit from active moderation as much as audience members can, if not more so, as they are expected to be engaging and interesting and informative and may therefore need coralling when they are not. In the not-so-recent past I’ve sat on panels where there have been panelists who don’t say in ten words what they can say in 10,000, and others who seem content to sit there and hunch over their little plastic cup of water, stay silent and count the minutes until the panel is done. Neither is optimal; a moderator needs to work with both to get the best out of each of them.

* Another idea floated in comments is that at a panel, the audience and the panel are equals. Well, no. Generally speaking the panelists are actively chosen by the con to be on a panel based on their interest/expertise on the topic; the audience self-selects — some of them may also be experts on the subject, some of them may have a passing interest, some of them may be there because they think one of the panelists is cute, some of them may be there because the room the panel is taking place in has a clear signal for the hotel wireless and they want to do a blog entry. In general, it’s reasonably expected that the panel will take up the bulk of the panel time tossing about ideas like seals with a beach ball, which will on occasion be thrown out into the audience with the hope the audience will bounce the ball back with an interesting new spin. In terms of the discourse of the panel, the panelists are primary participants, and the audience secondary.

No, it doesn’t have to be that way, which is why I used the weaselly qualifying term “in general” in that last paragraph. There is absolutely no reason a panel can’t be largely audience driven in certain circumstance — at Noreascon I moderated a panel on massively multiplayer online games which I threw open to audience questions almost immediately, in no small part because there were only two people on the panel, and one of them (me) was not a programmer for MMOG, and I sensed that the audience would ask the other panelist (who was a MMOG designer) far more relevant questions than I could. My job at that panel was simply selecting who got to ask the next question and occasionally throwing in a follow-up question for the other panelist. I think that panel worked beautifully.

And for that matter, not every expert-audience group interation at a con needs to be a panel. In the comment thread, people note interesting experiments with the panel format at particular cons, which blurred the roles of panelist and audience member; I would heartily encourage lots more experimentation. A panel is not the right format for everything, and I think a fair number of the dead panels I’ve seen were so because the panel format didn’t lend itself to the best exploration of that particular topic. Panels are merely the default format, and science fiction folks, of all people, should be willing to leave the default behind.

That said, there are times when the classic panel format is perfectly right for a subject, and in those times, it’s the folks on the panel who should be assumed to be the primary conversationalists. The audience members can, do and should participate, but while the panel is for their amusement and edification, it’s not about them, or featuring them in a primary way. It’s about whatever the topic is, and it’s primarily featuring the panelists. In general.

* Some comments suggest that forcing everything the panel audience says to be phrased as a question will keep certain commentorial avenues from opening up. Yes it will. That’s indeed the point. But the underlying complaint here is that it will limit interesting discourse, which I don’t know is true. This is true: Asking all comments to be in the form of a question is a little bit of hoop jumping. But the intent behind it — keep the conversational ball in the air — is the point, and making the audience aware that as a moderator you see it as their responsibility to keep the conversation moving forward when it thrown to them is not a trivial thing. The issue with “not a question, more of a comment” isn’t that it’s a comment, per se. It’s that they derail the conversation taking place in the panel. Having audience comments in the form of a question implicitly recognizes that the conversation is intended to go forward, not to deflate and die in the fifth row. That’s worth a smidgen of hoop-jumping. Anyway, science fiction people are smart people — I have faith that they have the ability to have an interesting point in the form of a question.

* I suspect that at least some of the flak for my “no naqmoac” position is the “you’re not the boss of me” rebellious streak science fiction fans have toward anyone and anything they feel is making arbitrary decisions in an attempt to affect their behavior. Something along the lines of you know, I wasn’t going make a comment, but now that you’ve said I couldn’t, I think maybe I will. Also, and complementary to this: No one likes a dick, and telling people to ask questions rather than comments seems dickish, even if it’s for a good cause.

I certainly understand the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude, because, you know, I kind of have it, like, all the time. Nevertheless, panels are not (or at the very least, should not be) unstructured environments, and while I’m sure we all agree that we would never launch into a long, blathering, and utterly pointless comment as a panel audience member, we all know people who would. As a moderator, my job is to help the panel achieve its goals of staying on topic, being jam-packed with interesting ideas, and rolling along in an engaging and interesting manner, whether the person speaking is a panelist or an audience member. Someone’s gotta drive, in other words, and the person who’s gotta drive should also be willing to turn this damn car around right now and go back home if you kids don’t stop that this instant.

Now, naturally, when laying down the ground rules for a panel, the moderator should be pleasant as possible and do what he or she can to make sure the audience (and the panelists) understand the need and desirability for certain ground rules. Most people, I suspect, will understand and attempt to honor them. And — this is an important point — if the ground rules are getting in the way of the panel reaching its full potential, the moderator should kick the ground rules to the curb and let ‘er rip. A smart moderator (in my opinion) sets rules but is not a slave to them if the situation requires change. Most of the time, I suspect, this won’t be necessary, but it’s nice to give one’s self the option.

Ultimately, however, the moderator’s role is management, with the goal of enlightenment. Occasionally a moderator may need to get snippy — snooty! Snotty! — with someone to get that done, and as you might have guessed by this point, I don’t have a problem with that, although it’s not my first choice of behavior (a gentle subtle nudging of the conversation back to the topic is a good start, followed a slightly less genial “let’s move on” is that doesn’t work, and escalating from there). But better the moderator put his or her foot down to keep things moving than the panel gets derailed. People remember a derailed panel.

* Claire Light suggested I become Panel Commissioner for the next Wiscon. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha! No. I’d rather plan a totally awesome dance.

21 Comments on “More on Moderating”

  1. I believe the ratbastards or the Carl Brandon Society or both or something are going to bring back the dance for WisCon 30.

    Also Betsy Lundsten, our current Lord God of Programming, might have something to say about your setting yourself up in a rival position. I’m just saying. I’m sure she’d be thrilled were you to volunteer to be one of her underlings.

    We WisCon concom folks just love ourselves some underlings. Oh, hang on, I’m an underling for WisCon 30 . . . Feel free to join me!

  2. “Another idea floated in comments is that at a panel, the audience and the panel are equals. Well, no. Generally speaking the panelists are actively chosen by the con to be on a panel based on their interest/expertise on the topic ….”

    Well, no. ;-) When we put you on panels for WisCon this year, we knew diddly about you or your expertise. We knew only that you had filled out our program participant signup form, said you’d like to be on certain items, and said you’d like to moderate.

    Maybe you thought we had information on you from somewhere else and maybe we could have, but we didn’t. So, from our point of view, you self-selected your way onto the panel every bit as much as your audience self-selected which panel to attend. The only real difference is that your “self-selection” implicitly stated that you enough confidence in your expertise that you were willing to sit up front and maybe make a fool of yourself. And we all know self-confidence isn’t always justified! ;-)

    Programming for most conventions may be another one of those sausage-type things — folks tend to think it is tidier and more scientific than it is and are sometimes appalled when they look more closely. Fairly often, even when a program committee manually selects a panelist it’s more about whether they like the person or merely recognize the name than it is about expertise on the topic.

    Someday, in my copious spare time, I’m going to write a long and probably boring article detailing on WisCon programming works!

    Meanwhile, what Justine said about our need for more underlings. ;-) You’re obviously a thoughtful guy who cares about programming and we’re always in the market for more help.

  3. Jane Hawkins:

    “Well, no. ;-) When we put you on panels for WisCon this year, we knew diddly about you or your expertise. We knew only that you had filled out our program participant signup form, said you’d like to be on certain items, and said you’d like to moderate.”

    Yes, I knew that about Wiscon, which is why I put in “interest/expertise” and not just “expertise.” I do note Wiscon’s panels are more “self-selecting” than many cons. Nevertheless a final determination for who goes on what panel is made by the convention rather than, say, audience acclaimation.

    Although that would be an interesting way to pick a panel — have everyone who is interested in the topic meet in a room and then pick amongst themselves who will be on the panel. Hmmm….

  4. “Another idea floated in comments is that at a panel, the audience and the panel are equals.”

    Who said this? Nobody I can see.

    I observed that “at a lot of convention events, to a non-zero extent, I am there to listen to other people in the audience.” This was in response to Steve Eley’s assertion that he’s “not there to listen to other people in the audience.” I don’t really see how you get from there to the claim that I think the audience should talk as much as the panel, or that audience commenters should be extended all the courtesies of panelists. What part of “non-zero extent” do you not understand?

  5. (Then on the other hand there’s this:

    “I certainly understand the ‘you’re not the boss of me’ attitude, because, you know, I kind of have it, like, all the time. Nevertheless…”

    –which is, like, pure distilled Scalzi in can.)

  6. PNH:

    “Who said this? Nobody I can see.”

    It’s from the concurrent LiveJournal dicussion, actually, where Mary Kay Kare notes:

    “I tend to view the audience as another panel member and I incline to the conversation model.”

    Suggesting equivalence between panel and audience (or at least panelists and the audience).

  7. My wife and I, veterans of Detroit-area cons, sympathized utterly with your original post. We even have nicknames for the hapless individuals who seem to follow us around to interesting panels posing long-winded and pointless statements that create a weirdly awkward ambience in some discussions. We both salute the effort to better focus and moderate panel discussions.

    Hopefully you’ll come back to the Detroit area so we can experience more of your moderation mojo. The blog panel at ConFusion pretty much rocked, thanks to your skillz.

  8. Our host writes:

    Although that would be an interesting way to pick a panel — have everyone who is interested in the topic meet in a room and then pick amongst themselves who will be on the panel. Hmmm….

    Have two appointed panelists, and slots for two elected panelists. Stage a fast little campaign in the first five minutes of the panel and hold an election. Moderator and appointed panelist #2 don’t get a vote.

    This ensures that the pump will be primed with known panelists, while leaving room for the delights of potluck.

    I wouldn’t do it for every panel, but the experiment might be worth trying a few times, given suitable topics.

  9. “The blog panel at ConFusion pretty much rocked, thanks to your skillz.”

    Thanks, David. I recall the other panelists being very good as well.

  10. The goals of “putting on a good show,” “watching a good show,” “instigating a meaningful communal experience,” and “participating in a meaningful communal experience” exist in subtly different flavors and tensions at various s-f conventions.

    I think John has been careful, in what he’s been saying, to affirm his belief that audience participation is an important part of the “panel experience.”

    My two cents are in this thread to resist propagation of the meme that s-f convention programming is *always* *only* about putting on a good show. Take away the “always” and the “only” and I’m happy to subside. I’m sticking up for the notion that *sometimes* the panel format in s-f convention events can be used as a springboard for a “voyage of discovery.” The “voyage” may be enhanced by declarative observations from people in audience chairs as well as observations from people stationed at the microphones. I hope I’m communicating this concept without it coming across as overly tacky. The possibility of these “voyage experiences” is one of the reasons I still go to panel events at s-f conventions after almost forty years of them.

    I’m perfectly happy with John’s declared philosopy, here, as one flavor of panel moderation. As a con-runner, I might favor him to apply the “no audience statements” dynamic to moderate a panel with a title like “Heinlein was Right [Wrong] — or want him to moderate a collection of experts doing infodumps on some other hot and controversial subject.

    But I might have second thoughts about making John the moderator (with the philosophy he’s avowing) of a panel called “Remembering Theodore Sturgeon.” As a con-runner planning that panel, I’d want to populate the speaker’s table with people who can be articulate about Sturgeon’s writing (and Sturgeon, the man) — but I’d also want to know that people in the audience would have the chance to stand up and share their personal feelings about what Sturgeon means to them. I believe that some s-f panels are more meaningful to most people in the room as this kind of town meeting/group communication exercise.

    put him on with it — particularly on a Robert Heinlein symposium, or

  11. Lenny Bailes:

    “But I might have second thoughts about making John the moderator (with the philosophy he’s avowing) of a panel called ‘Remembering Theodore Sturgeon.'”

    And rightly so, presuming I was inflexible about the “no Naqmoac” rule in all cases. As you note, however, this would be a panel where audience remembrances would be a key component. If I were the moderator here, I would hope to be smart enough to do service to the panel and its subject rather than fall back on rigid dogma.

    (However, if chosen to moderate this particular panel I would probably decline unless no one else could be chosen, on the grounds that I’m not an appropriately huge fan of Sturgeon’s, and the panel would be better moderated by someone with more depth of knowledge about the man. Moderators should also know their limits.)

  12. The panel where I got to meet both Irene Gallo and Roger Dean at Comic-con is an example of everybody being totally derailed by one audience member. This guy went on for like twenty minutes (or so it seemed–it was probably closer to five or ten) about how he’d send his art portfolios out but he just couldn’t seem to get art directors to realise his creative vision. (This was a panel about being a fantasy cover artist.) The moderator made some polite suggestions and hints but he kept on rambling and needless to say, nobody wanted to be the one to forcibly remove him from the mic.

  13. Whenever a certain local radio host starts wandering, his producer hits him with a sound clip of the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”. Maybe you could have one cued up & ready when someone hijacks the proceedings.

  14. Hello! I lurk often and never post, but I have to say my only thought on this topic is that your position is based on a presumption the panelists are 1)prepared to say something relevant on the topic and 2) able to play well enough with others to allow the audience to hear everyone’s thoughts on the topic at hand.

    Unfortunately, my last con experience featured panelists who bullied their peers, spoke over them, denigrated their opinions as well as people who really didn’t have much concrete information to offer. I actually became a ‘not a question,but a comment’ person (who raised her hand and waited to be called on) because the panelists were missing the mark and missing badly.

    Now, I know what you’re saying, I’ve seen people who’ve started a comment filibuster and nothing short of an alien abduction would shut them up. Yes, those people are supremely irritating and make me wish I had thought to bring duct tape to slap over their mouths.

    I did my best to confine my comments to the topic at hand where I had something of value to add. For example, directing people to websites or blogs that could address their question in depth (because the panel certainly wasn’t doing it). Comments can be a positive addition to the discussion.

    I’m actually disillusioned with the panel model. It seemed to me no one really prepared for their panels and they had nothing but vague generalities to offer on any particular subject. I got the sense in the ‘writing your first book panel’ that panelists went with the ‘I’ve written and published several books’ approach as the sum total of their preparation. Well it takes more than being published to give good panel and in cases where the panel is not doing well, I do think intelligent comments from the audience on the subject are appropriate. Afterall we paid to be there, we’re the customer,we should get something for our money whoever it comes from.

    Certainly moderators should interrupt off topic rants, but to say the audience can only ask questions and may never say anything else–well any author who did that would lose all credibility with me as well as future purchases of their work.

    In a perfect world where authors were always eloquent, polite, gracious, and full of wisdom I would agree with your position wholeheartedly, but I’ve met more authors than I would like to admit who’ve committed just as many egregious panel sins as a never ending commenter.

    Or am I just going to the wrong cons?


    P.S. Please keep in mind the con I went to was different than the one Scalzi is speaking of.

  15. “Certainly moderators should interrupt off topic rants, but to say the audience can only ask questions and may never say anything else–well any author who did that would lose all credibility with me as well as future purchases of their work.”

    Why? Is it really that difficult to put things into question format? I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask audience members to be mindful that the conversation should not stop with them, and I think asking people at the outset to avoid panel-stopping comments and to choose questions instead is vastly more preferable than interrupting off-topic rants, because once people get a head of steam going, they’re hard to shut down.

    Doing so raises the stress level for everyone, because now you have an uncomfortable confrontation, where the moderator is telling someone, in so many words, to shut the Hell up. That puts the moderator in the position of looking like a dick, embarrasses the audience member, and jolts the panel to a dead stop. On balance, it’s better to lay out ground rules early and avoid just this sort of panel-squashing interruption.

    In the situation where you’ve performed your naqmoac, apparently things were so off the rails to begin with that your comment couldn’t have made things worse. In that position, I might offer up a naqmoac myself, because the panel and the panelists are breaking faith with the audience and not offering a useful and interesting experience.

    Although I imagine I could offer the comment equally as a question: “Considering that we here in the audience have paid in time and money come here to hear you speak on the subject, is there a good reason we shouldn’t be offended by the fact you’re wasting our time with your petty sniping and self-aggrandizement?” Or, more succinctly, “What are the odds that any of you are actually going to address the topic the panel’s supposed to be about?”

    And if that doesn’t work, audience mutiny is indeed a viable option.

  16. John:

    I appreciate your response and sense of humor, but any audience member who was that confrontational would be labeled as a wingnut and ignored.

    Actually, in a panel with good group dynamics, comments from the audience can be a lot of fun. Last year the con was great and everyone talked, not just the panelists, and got along just fine (with a few naqmoacs, but compared to this year, I really can’t complain).

    I guess, my position would be to hire bouncers to physically remove the filibusters. :)

    Oh and my comments were under a minute, many under 30 seconds. I did not derail the panel. Everyone else’s bad behavior clued me in and I purposely worked to avoid being like them.


  17. Excellent. Now if you can just convince everyone to follow your example, as I believe they should, I wouldn’t be considering the naqmoac rule at all.

  18. At ConFusion this past January (meant to say Penguicon in the comment about John’s skillz above, damn my eyes), my friends and I attended many different sorts of programming events. One was effectively a lecture, with slide show by the most excellent astronomer Christian Ready. Not a NAQMOAC to be found, because it was just the one guy and not so much a panel. Then there was the LiveJournal user panel, which was not a panel at all, but a roundtable introduction and (often multi-threaded) conversation (again, distinct from the blog panel at Penguicon, which John moderated). Then there was the “Forthcoming from Tor” panel, which should have just been a couple of illustrious editors talking about the new and exciting about to come out, and thanks to a couple of epic NAQMOACs, turned into a “Guide to Manuscript Submissions” with some info about some new and exciting books tossed in at the end. And then there were a couple panels run, more or less, as panels, with knowledgeable speakers up front and curious audience members with thoughtful questions.

    I agree that SF, of all fields, all genres, seems such an unlikely place for a hidebound dogma of programming and attendee participation. For what it’s worth, and your mileage may vary, but I think the Detroit- and Chicago-area cons have been rather well run in this way, taking advantage of the wide variety of interaction options.

  19. Monsieur Scalzi,

    I will help organize a dance if you come back to WisCon. I plan on being there for more than lunch next year.

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