(This is the second part of a series about conventions. Click here for the first part.)
So you’ve been to a few conventions and now that you’ve done the whole spectator thing, you want to get involved. How to get started?
Most conventions welcome and beg for volunteers. Just look around on their website until you find the volunteer form or contact information. Volunteers are needed for running errands, helping with major events, setting up chairs, sitting behind tables, guarding doors, and room monitoring, to name a few. Most conventions offer volunteer swag based on how many hours you work. If you work full time at any convention you will usually earn a free pass. (If you work full-time at a convention you won’t have time to actually attend anything!)
Volunteering is a great way to get to know the people behind the scenes at conventions, make new friends and maybe even spend time with the guests of honor. It’s a lot of fun and the mark of a truly committed con goer.
So what about sitting on a panel? Panels are round-table discussions on a given topic. The ideal panel consists of five people–four experts and a moderator. Depending on the convention, the experts may or may not even know anything about the given topic. If a particular panel gets desperate for participants they’ll pull in anyone who looks intelligent and can coherently answer questions. So don’t worry if you’re not a full blown expert on anything–keep your answers short and relevant. The moderator will help keep the conversation moving, and field questions from the audience.
There is a great deal already written on being a convention panelist, becoming a moderator, and on panel etiquette. The most important thing to remember is to do your research and be professional. You don’t need to spend your entire panel apologizing that you don’t know anything, or bullying everyone else into your point of view. Most panel discussions are just multiple rounds of opinions, not well-researched fact, and if you sound confident and remain polite you’re sure to be a success.
Here is one of my favorite posts about panel etiquette from Chuck Wendig, at Terrible Minds. (Warning: contains strong language.) Chuck attends WorldCon and other cons regularly, so I’m reasonably sure he knows what he’s talking about.
Coming Up With Panel Ideas
If you are destined to be a convention panelist then for the last several cons you’ve attended you’ve been taking notes at the panels you’ve attended. By now you should have a list of ideas, or at least several comments on subjects that you felt you could talk about with more confidence than the panelists you’ve seen.
If none of these things have happened then that’s okay. Maybe you’ve haven’t had time to go to very many panels, or you haven’t been hit by a stroke of brilliance, or all the panels you’ve been to were already pretty good. Not every convention requires that you submit panel suggestions, but many do. If you have an idea for a panel you’d like to sit on, you can go ahead and fill out that form. They’re usually available on the convention website at least six months prior to the event, sometimes nearly a full year ahead of time. These forms do have deadline, so be sure to make note of when various convention deadlines are, so you can apply to the ones you’re interested in in a timely fashion.
Many conventions also run a second submission window, usually after the first one closes. This is to give people who want to speak but don’t have panel ideas a chance to volunteer as well. Traditionally, panel suggestions can be submitted by anyone, even random audience members. Speakers then submit an application, and become assigned to panels. In your speaker application you’ll be asked questions about your interests, as well as whether or not you want to be a moderator. Unless you already have experience speaking and are comfortable you can direct the flow of conversation, first time panelists should avoid applying to be moderators. Once you have some experience under your belt you can venture into moderating, if that appeals to you.
If you do submit a panel idea, the forms will usually want to know what the title is, a brief description of the topic, and any other panelists you want to include. If you don’t know anyone else to include as additional panelists just leave that part blank–the organizers will find people to populate it with. They will also ask whether or not you need a projector, and whether or not you’re comfortable presenting solo. Which brings us to…
Often times conventions will give you the option to present solo, instead of on a panel. These presentations often take the form of lectures, and generally include slides. If you’re an expert, or a pseudo-expert on some topic related to the convention of your choice and you feel confident in your ability to assemble a 30-45 minute presentation then this is an excellent choice for you. Solo presentations are not for the wishy-wash or inexperienced, however, and there’s nothing worse than coming prepared for a panel and discovering you’re the only person behind the table.
Most people, when put into a situation where they have a lot of eyes on them, develop some form of stage fright. If you’re nervous about your up-coming panels, that’s perfectly normal. Here’s a few tips for dealing with that.
1. You are not on a stage. Sure, you may be at the front of a room containing upwards of a hundred people, but it’s not quite the same as being in the spotlight. You’re on the same level as they are, behind a table. Should the audience turn zombie and attempt to attack you, you’ve got that table as a first line of defence. It’s also good to hide under, in the event cabbages are thrown at your head.
2. You are not alone. There will probably be three or four other people sitting next to you. You may have emailed with each other before this, and certainly exchanged introductions before the room filled up. Some of them might be nervous too, but there’s also a couple of veterans panelists, no doubt. Should you stutter and forget what you’re saying, you won’t ruin the entire panel, because one of them will pick up the thread of conversation and go along with it.
3. There will be water. Most hotels provide carafes of water and clean, empty glasses for the panel participants. Always arrive a few minutes early to your panel, and if there isn’t any water available, politely excuse yourself to go get some. Or break out the emergency bottle you should be carrying in your bag at all times. Water is invaluable, since you’ll be doing a lot of talking. A dry mouth is one symptom of stage fright, and having some nice water will help with that as well. It also gives you something to do with your hands, and can provide a distraction technique in the event the moderator asks you a question directly.
4. You cannot screw up. This is not college–you do not have to provide citations. You don’t even have to be right. The two most important aspects for being a panelists are to be polite, and to be entertaining. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a comedian–you just have to be able to smile, laugh, and not drone on like Professor Boring of Blahtown. If you were invited to be on the panel in the first place then somebody thought you were capable, and as long as you didn’t lie to be selected then the responsibility for putting you in this position is on their heads, not yours.
Seriously, there is no way this can go wrong.
Beyond Convention Walls
So the convention is over. You survived your panel. You made a few friends, you might have even sold a few books. Now what?
It can be very hard to remember to keep in touch with people once you return to real life, but if you overcome that final hurdle it can make a huge difference. Everyone from your fellow panelists to a random audience member could be a catalyst for your career, and if an editor expresses an interest a manuscript you want to be able to contact him once you get home to where your manuscripts live!
Make sure you trade names and email addresses with your fellow panelists, as they are the ones you’re most likely to want to contact later. If you want to contact them but don’t really have a legitimate reason, you can always bring up something they said on the panel that piqued your interest. This opens general conversation and can lead up to whatever is that you’re really emailing about. People tend to be very open and friendly towards people they’ve met in person, and having been on their panel gives you that much more credibility.
Always keep business cards on you to give to people in the audience who come up to ask you questions. Bookmarks or postcards for your books are good too–if they ask for them. Don’t force papers onto people who really don’t want to read your book.
Have an online presence, and make sure you let people know what it is. Are you on Facebook or Twitter? It’s okay to mention this when you introduce yourself. The world is becoming increasingly digital, and it’s not uncommon to see audience members on their phones for a large portion of your panel. Don’t get offended–they’re not being rude! They’re probably liking your Facebook page, reading your convention bio, or trying to figure out which handle is yours on Twitter because they know they’ll forget to follow if they wait until they get home. If you’re not on social media you might consider joining. Convention people are very social, and usually very technologically savvy.
After you get home from the convention you may find that you have accumulated several pounds of pamphlets, bookmarks, and business cards. As tempting as it is to just throw these in a show box until “you have time,” it’s best to at least make an effort to sort through them during the “unpacking” stage of your trip. At least sort out the most important ones and put them somewhere noticeable, so they won’t get lost with the rest. And then, over the next week or two, follow up. Send emails to people you promised emails too. Find the Facebook profiles of people you thought were awesome. Buy the book you promised to get online. If you let it sit too long you will forget, and then years later when you finally run into that person again there will be a really awkward conversation.