Moderation In All Things II
Written By: Randy Hall
Published: Issue 17
"Sing us a song, we're the panel men!" With apologies to Billy Joel, that's become the theme song for myself and some of my friends since we enjoy leading out in discussions at fan-run conventions.
In last week's column, we "talked" about the most important thing you can do as a moderator to make your panel interesting: be prepared. But what if a moderator's worst nightmare happens? What if the people who were supposed to run a panel on something you know nothing--or almost nothing--about don't show up and you're asked to take their place--right now?
This first happened to me a few years ago. I had just finished a panel and was about to head to the dealers' room and spend some hard-earned quatloos when the woman in charge of programming pulled me aside. With a bit of panic in her eyes, she told me that the people who'd volunteered to lead a discussion on the seaQuest TV series hadn't gotten there yet, then asked if I could just go in and "get the discussion started" until the real panelists arrived.
For a moment, I thought I'd "just say no" because I'd only seen the show's two-hour pilot and didn't like it enough to watch any episodes during the following two years. (Nothing personal, all you big seaQuest fans out there.) Oh, I was aware that the show had gone through some big changes, but I had no clue as to what those were.
Still, there was a roomful of people anxiously awaiting their chance to discuss a show they obviously enjoyed and who'd be disappointed if the panel never happened. After thinking about how I'd feel if I was in their place, I agreed to enter the lion's den.
But I didn't have to go in alone. I remembered that a friend at the con had told me he regularly watched seaQuest, even though he felt the show wasn't as good as it used to be. I quickly found him and told him my situation. He agreed to be on the panel with me. This meant that there'd be someone up front who could speak intelligently about the series, even if it wasn't yours truly!
At that point, I wasn't entirely "off the hook," but I only had to play "Mister Moderator," something I could handle. As we got the discussion rolling, I asked the folks in attendance all kinds of questions. How many had watched the show from the start? How many came in later? Who was everyone's favorite character? Had the significant changes the series had gone through made it better or worse?
Whenever someone brought up a plot point or bit of characterization I didn't know about, I deferred to my friend, who happily discussed these matters. This pretty much left me to make my greatest contribution to the discussion by telling everyone that "I really like Stephanie Beachum."
You've probably guessed by now that the people who were supposed to host the panel never made it, but we still had a good time, and everyone got the discussion they were looking for.
"Aha," you say. "But what if your friend hadn't been available? What would you have done then?"
I have indeed been thrust into situations where I was the only one leading out and I didn't know much about the show or topic being discussed. In such instances, I've usually fallen back on being "Mister Moderator" and asked the folks in attendance a lot of questions. When someone has asked me about something I didn't know, I turned the question back to the "audience", and there has almost always been someone keeping a close eye on such things. While those were certainly not the best panels I've ever done, they've enabled people to talk about something they like for an hour, which is one of the reasons they came to the fan-run con in the first place.
However, I do want to touch on something NOT to do in those instances. At a later con, another friend and I had agreed to take charge of a panel on a show neither of us had ever seen, and she asked if she could be the moderator. I said, "Sure," and figured I'd just jump into the talk now and then when I could.
When it was time for the discussion to start, my friend cheerfully announced: "Welcome to the panel that YOU will make happen because my friend and I up here have NEVER watched the show and don't know ANYTHING about it." I was so surprised that I could have sworn I felt my eyeballs fall out of their sockets and bounce on the floor, and someone later told me I looked like I'd "seen a ghost." (I had, and it was MINE!) I wondered if I should try to tone down what she'd said, but the damage had already been done.
Needless to say, the folks in the "audience" started talking to each other because they figured the panelists were just window dressing, and things degenerated into chaos after they stopped listening to us even when we asked that only one person speak at a time. That was one of the longest hours of my life, and I've been careful never to let it happen again.
While I don't think it's a good idea to lie to people by telling them you know all about the subject at hand if you really don't, I think a moderator has to maintain at least a small level of control and starting out with "true confessions" like "I have no idea what we're talking about" just makes the job harder.
Sorry I'm not being very moderate in my discussion of moderating panels, but we'll move on to other thoughts on the subject next time!