Panels from Hell

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I am going down to Carmel (a favorite spot of mine) to do a panel at the Harrison Memorial library with the very talented Hannah Dennison and, since I also just received my panel allocation for Malice Domestic, I am mulling over the whole ‘what makes a successful panel’ issue. Believe me I have seen some stinkers in my time – I dread being on the panel from hell more than just about anything (except perhaps being moderator of the panel from hell…) – but what makes or breaks a panel?

  • First of course, the topic has to be interesting and one that resonates with the panelists. I was once put on a panel about hot sex and had to admit from the get-go that basically there was no hot sex in any of my books! (The panel still was great, despite that:)). However, even with the most exciting of topics there’s still a risk of boring the pants off the audience. I have seen plenty of excellent presentations on some of the most mundane topics (and let’s face it, there’s a limit to how many topics there can be on mystery writing…) and some of the most boring presentations on the hottest of topics…so there must be more to it than merely topic alone.
  • A terrific moderator – a good moderator can ameliorate against some of the worst panel sins (microphone hogging, long-winded answers, blatant and constant self-promotion) – but I’ve been on panels where it is immediately clear that the moderator hasn’t even bothered to read up on the panelists work! In my mind a terrific moderator is prepared, professional, witty and unafraid to step where angels fear to tread in order to prevent the above mentioned sins from ruining a perfectly good panel presentation. What I think turns off many in the audience is a moderator who either sits back and lets the panel degenerate into a rant/lecture/ego-fest, or one who is so intrusive it is as if she (or he) was a panelist rather than a moderator.
  • Well prepared participants. There’s no point being on a panel if you think you can just ‘phone in’ your answers without giving the topic any thought. Some of the worst panels I’ve been on have had an author who clearly spent no time at all thinking about anything except how to promote his (or her) next book at any given opportunity. The best panels I’ve been on have been where the moderator has given everyone a heads-up on possibly questions first, though this is still no guarantee that the panelists will have anything interesting to say about them!
  • Professionalism – as with all the worst panel sins mentioned, the most horrible panels occur when one or more of the participants completely takes over and (disregarding any professional courtesy to others on the panel) hogs the limelight. Equally well, the authors who ramble on for ten minutes answering the question are just as unprofessional in my book. I believe authors should treat the panel as a showcase for themselves as both a writer and a member of the writing community – so no unprofessional behavior please! My motto: Be gracious – dress for the occasion, act for the occasion, and shut-up when necessary.
  • Pass on the Jerry Springer moments. I’ve only witnessed one panel degenerate to this kind of in-fighting – but some authors do allow themselves to get carried away. As far as I’m concerned arrogance and vitriol needs to be left at the door.

So have you had any horrific panel experiences? Any tips from being on a panel or from being in the audience on what makes (or breaks) a panel? What was the best (or the worst!) panel you ever saw or participated in?


8 thoughts on “Panels from Hell

  1. All good points, Clare. I’ve been on or seen examples of everything you write here. Authors need to remember they are there primarily for the audience, and if they are genuine and try to impart useful and/or entertaining information, that’s the best form of marketing for that particular venue.

  2. My best panel experiences have been when there’s been some kind of chemistry between the panelists, and when the moderator has energy and a sense of humor. The worst is when there’s been an Angry Man (haven’t run into any Angry Women yet), who is clearly disillusioned with his sales, agent, publisher, or some combination thereof, and uses the panel to vent. Or he just sounds cranky. Don’t be bitter.

  3. I have been sooooo lucky with the panels I’ve been on at Thrillerfest, Magna Cum Murder, and Bouchercon. I have had one moderator who was a dud, and only wanted to talk about her career and work, but it was more funny, and a bit sad, than bothersome. I just observed her and how the audience was reacting and it gave me a new take on something …or other.

  4. Thanks guys – i haven’t yet had the ‘venting’ guy disillusioned with it all so I guess I have that to look forward to! I’ve been pretty lucky with the panels I’ve been on but I have been a witness to some real train wrecks…

  5. My worst panel experience was when the moderator came totally unprepared, introduced herself, said the topic was paranormal thrillers, and suggested each panelist speak for ten minutes on the topic. She then pointed to the first panelist, sat down, and never said another word. The best experience is to be on any panel covering any topic and having Barry Eisler as the moderator.

  6. Clare, please, please include in your list of panel rules that the panelists should SPEAK INTO THE MICROPHONE. Nothing is worse than a panelist who thinks that, just because the microphone is situated three feet away, he can be heard across town.

    Many authors who serve on panels are unaccustomed to public speaking, and therefore tend to mumble, necessitating the microphone all the more. Most moderators are blissfully unaware of this problem, since they can hear the panelist–of course! He’s right next to them!

    And I might add, speaking into the microphone does NOT mean moving it from three feet away to two feet away. It should be within two or three inches of the speaker’s mouth. It will startle him/her at first, since it will seem too loud, but it won’t be.

    The people have paid to attend these conferences and are entitled to be able to hear the speakers without straining. In addition, the conferences have paid for the microphones, so why not put them to use.


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