Convergence 2014, part 1: So You Want to Be a Panelist

Squeevolution!My first of only two panels for this year’s Convergence, this one was Friday at noon-thirty. Not especially gaming-related, but the panel was very meta, and so applicable in a way.

The panelists started off listing our qualifications for being on the panel. I tried to push back against this. I started mine by saying that I’m interested in the panel, and that I care about it, and that I think that’s all anyone should need to be on a panel. There’s a really deep-rooted meme out there that we all have to be published professionals or whatever in order to be on a panel, and that’s totally not true. (There are definitely people who shouldn’t be on particular panels, but most of us are not those people.) So I said that I don’t think qualifications are a good thing to list at the beginning of a panel, and that I wish we could stop doing it. Of course, no one actually stopped. But at least I put that out there.

One of the heads of Convergence programming detailed the programming process for Convergence, which turned out to be really valuable for a lot of the audience, I think. It seems that quite a few folks didn’t understand how programming ideas are collected, or how to sign up, or how people get assigned to panels. So having it out there helps a lot. Hopefully this will lead to a bunch of cool programming that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

We addressed a few specific audience questions. One interesting one was: How broad should a panel suggestion be in order to work? What makes a panel suggestion likely to work? Do you cast the net wider and hope for more attendees, or go narrower and hope for a more focused conversation?

The answer was a rather unsatisfying “it depends”. The real rule is, can a group of interested people talk coherently about your topic for one hour? If not — whether because an hour isn’t enough, or because it’s too much, or because the panelists won’t be able to agree on what the topic is — it’s not a good topic. But how exactly do you formulate a panel suggestion so that it’ll work that way? That’s pretty much impossible to state clearly and easily. Designing a panel precis is much more an art than a science, and one that, even after years of work on the process, I’m still not super-expert at.

We discussed a few different ways to be a moderator. Elise mentioned a couple moderator tricks she’s learned: one, cutting audience members off when need be to demand that their spiel end in a question mark; and sitting on the end of the panel table, so that not only can she hear the other panelists more clearly, but she can see reactions they have to things said during the panel. And we eventually mentioned the Minicon Moderator Tip Sheet, which still stands as a great reference for potential programming moderators.

There was discussion of how to do pre-discussion, what to do when you find yourself on a panel you honestly didn’t sign up for, how to clarify your scheduling requirements, how to steer panels without railroading it, and quite a bit more. Lots of good topics got airtime.

After the panel, two folks came up and talked to me. I recognized them both from gaming panels, where they’ve said a lot of good things over the years. They asked me why I and one other frequent panelist are on a lot of the gaming panels together. Is this an established thing? Are other people allowed to be on panels?

Gack! This was what made me deeply realize how useful it is to go over the panel submission and sign-up process. If folks are getting the impression that there’s a restricted slate of people who can be on Convergence gaming programming, something has gone wrong. I tried to dispel any illusions, and hopefully they’ll both suggest or be on panels next year.

A major flaw in this panel is that, well, it lacked moderation. It needed someone to keep the conversation on track, and to make sure that everyone on the panel got to talk, and that the audience interaction went smoothly. But there were at least two different people calling on audience members (always a bad sign), and we panelists ended up talking over each other a lot because it was clear that the conversation was otherwise going to be dominated by certain folks (specifically, white men).

I had hoped that specifically designating a moderator in advance would help this. But I learned from this panel that not only do you need to designate a moderator, you also need to all be on the same page about what the moderator will do. And that is bloody difficult to do, regardless of how much pre-discussion you do, because some people won’t necessarily follow the agreement. And because regardless of how clear the agreement is, not everyone will understand it the same way. It’s kind of like the social contract in a game (whether at a con or in your home). Developing it with a group of people you know, over a period of months, is easy. Developing it in the two minutes from when everyone sits down to when the event actually starts is super-difficult.

Towards the end of the panel, we asked the audience how they’ve participated in panels before. As a last question, I asked for a show of hands of how many people would like to be on panels. Almost everyone raised their hands, which was amazing. Very energizing and uplifting. It’s great that so many people want to get involved, and so many people are interested!

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