In the past few weeks, I've been asked several times for advice from people who've been asked to host their first literary panels. It makes sense; we're coming up on convention season — Emerald City Comicon is this weekend, Norwescon is on the way, and AWP is looming at the end of the month — and conventions bring with them a swarm of author panels.
And while it's always an honor to be asked to host a panel, no convention that I know of ever offers advice on how to be a good moderator. So I thought I'd share my advice here. I don't claim to be an expert, or even an especially good moderator, but I've hosted dozens of these things and so I apparently at least know how not to ruin a panel. Here's what I've learned so far.
First, and most importantly, unless something huge happens, nobody is there to see you, and nobody will remember you after the panel. (With the exception of the authors.) Your job is to make the panel flow easily and keep the conversation going. So be pleasant, be helpful, and be easy to work with: show up really early, introduce yourself to everyone including the sound guys, ask your panelists if they need anything.
Make sure to ask management ahead of time if you need to introduce the authors yourself or if someone with the event will do it. Being caught off guard with introductions is the worst. If you are writing and doing the introductions, be pretty brief — two or three sentences for each author. For the most part people know why they're there, so you're just getting them more hyped up with your intro and adding a little ceremony to the whole thing. But you can't assume that everyone in the audience knows everyone on the panel, so you do need to be informative in your introductions. Touch on the big career moments and keep it moving along.
Thank the audience for coming and tell them exactly what's going to happen. "I'm going to chat with the authors for about twenty minutes and then we'll have twenty minutes or so for audience questions, so make sure you have some good ones lined up." Before I ask my last question, I usually let the audience know that we're about to pivot to audience questions in a minute just so they're cued up.
Definitely read something by each author to prepare for the event. Then make a big list of questions, starting with really general ones, and then with individual questions for each writer. Avoid spoilers as much as possible. Make sure that your questions end with a question that the author can respond to. Write more questions than you'll possibly need, in case they burn through the questions very quickly. Running out of questions with twenty minutes on the clock is, take it from me, terrifying. Make sure your questions are written down, preferably printed out. Practice reading the questions and introductions aloud three or four times by yourself, at least. I do like ten or twelve times, over the course of three days before the event. As you're doing the event, check off the questions as you go, so you don't start to ask a question you've already asked a second time.
I find that asking funny questions isn't a great idea, because they always feel canned when I do them. Being funny when you have a good one-liner based on something the authors said is fine, but don't try to out-clever the writers. Be funny sparingly. Again, nobody's there to see you.
Your job is to make the writers look smart and charming. I always try to ask all the basic questions as creatively as possible: Where do you get your inspiration? How did you get your start? What are you working on now? And if one writer is dominating the panel, I try to ask the quieter panel members a specific question, just to try to get them out of their shell.
The audience Q&A usually makes the moderator feel like a third wheel on a bicycle, so try to be the one who calls on audience members to ask their questions. If someone in the audience asks a meandering non-question, try to make a question out of what they said for them. If the author says something interesting in response to an audience question, feel free to ask a followup. Have some extra questions in your back pocket just in case nobody in the audience is willing to ask anything.
When it comes time for audience Q&A, I always try to call on a woman first. Studies show that if the first audience question comes from a woman, other women are many times more likely to ask a question during the Q&A period than if a man asks the first question. The reverse is not true: men will still ask questions with the same frequency if a woman goes first. This is even true if an audience is overwhelmingly female: if a man asks the first question in a largely female audience, women are still more likely to not ask questions. So if a woman has her hand up at the beginning of the Q&A, I always try to call on them to make the Q&A more inclusive.
At the end, thank the audience again, thank the authors, and thank the hosts.
That's it! You'll be great! And you'll be even better the next time you host. Eventually, authors might specifically request you to host events, which is a pretty special sense of validation. A really good moderator is a rare thing, and authors love it when someone shows up prepared to do a professional job. If you want to impress your favorite authors, being a competent moderator is probably the easiest way to do that.