Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.37: Being a Good Panelist and a Great Moderator, with Susan J. Morris and Marc Tassin

This month’s wildcard episode comes to you from the 2015 GenCon Indy Writers’ Symposium, where Dan and Howard had the opportunity to interview Susan J. Morris and Marc Tassin. Susan is one of the finest moderators the symposium has ever seen, and Marc directs the event, building the schedule around good panelists and great moderators. Their advice is insightful, fresh, and spot-on. If you ever find yourself scheduled to speak on, or moderate, a panel, this episode is a great listen for beginning your preparation.

Homework: You’ve been invited to BobCon, and when you arrive at BobCon you realize WHY it’s called BobCon. How do you escape?

Thing of the week: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab, narrated by Steven Crossley.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: You aren’t the only panelist, work with the others to make it a great experience for the audience. Concise, considerate, and topically relevant. People remember soundbites! To be effective, plan ahead! Research, write it out, and practice. How do you get on a panel and stay on panels? Be good at something, be able to share what you know, be able to connect with strangers. The best panelists engage in conversation instead of just waiting to talk. Pay attention to the audience, the panelists, and the moderator. Moderators make the panelists shine, not themselves. Moderators should prepare, too! Know the dead spaces in the topic, know the panel and the audience. To identify the dead spaces, prepare, make notes, try questions, rehearse, and make sure this panel talks about what the audience wants to hear. You don’t have to cover everything. Do set expectations from the beginning. And have a great time at Bob Con!

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 37.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Being a Good Panelist and Being a Great Moderator.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Susan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Marc] Oh, yeah.
[Howard] So we have with us…
[Howard] Marc, your voice.
[Dan] Just listen to that rich molasses.
[Howard] We have with us Susan Morris and Marc Tassin from the GenCon Writers Symposium. We’re recording live in front of an audience of GenCon Writers Symposium attendees.
[Howard] By the way, attendees, Marc Tassin is the reason you have this program. Give it up!
[Howard] Okay. I am super grateful that you have built this awesome thing for us. But let’s go ahead and do the introductions properly. Susan, tell us a little bit about yourself.
[Susan] My name is Susan. I write middle grade fantasy and I’ve edited a bunch of Forgotten Realms books. I designed D&D for kids and I also wrote a column for Amazon called Writers Don’t Cry. Which I love, because it’s totally a lie. [Inaudible — that’s it?]
[Howard] The thing that I need to say about you is that when I see that I’m at the GenCon Writers Symposium and the moderator is Susan Morris, I relax because I know the panel is going to be moderated well. I’m not just saying that to make you blush or anything like that. You’re a great moderator. That’s why I wanted you here. Marc?
[Marc] My name is Marc Tassin. I’m a writer and game designer. I also happen to run the GenCon Writers Symposium.
[Howard] You do a bang up job for it.
[Marc] Well, thank you.

[Howard] Our listeners probably aspire at some point to do the sort of thing that you are doing right now. To sit and to talk to people. In large measure, because it’s a form of self-promotion, but also because it’s an honor to be sitting up here. I mean, I remember sitting on a panel next to Jerry Pournelle. I’ll tell that story at the drop of a hat, but not right now. How do you be a good panelist?
[Marc] Well, I think one of the most important things is to remember that when you’re on a panel, you aren’t on a solo panel. You need to remember that there are a lot of people sitting around you with some great ideas and some great things to share and that you’ll get your time. But you need to allow the other people that you’re with to speak, to share their ideas, and to work together to create a great experience for the audience.
[Dan] I think that’s a great place to start. Because when I first started doing panels, I would get the little programming schedule and say, “Oh, look, I’m on a panel this time. I’m so excited. I’m going to make this about me. This is my chance to promo myself, this is a chance to impress the audience,” and quickly learned that makes a horrible panel. Really, my goal now is I’m going to try to make this panel as interesting as possible for the people listening to it.
[Howard] Susan?
[Susan] Be concise, be considerate, and be topically relevant. With concise, it’s not only polite to the other panelists and to the audience which wants to cover a broad range of topics, but it’s also smart. Soundbites are what people remember. If you ramble on forever, people won’t remember a single thing you said.
[Dan] Yeah. If you go to a lot of cons, especially it seems to be the kind of local regional ones, there’s always that one guy who will start up and he’ll start talking a little slowly and he’ll tell a long story and it’s just… You’re right. It’s rude and it slows everything down and it takes time away from the topic and the other panelists.
[Susan] Also, the audience did come to hear about a topic.
[Susan] So it’s really polite to talk about that topic.

[Howard] Now, the thing that you just did, when you said be concise, be considerate, and then you were concise, and you ended at a stopping point, you ended so effectively that there was this pause while Dan realized, “Oh, she stopped.”
[Howard] okay, I’m not being… That was awesome. How do you do that?
[Susan] Plan ahead. I research before I talk with someone to find out where the dead space is in a topic. I actually literally write out ideas of how I could say things. Because the first time you say it, there’ll be so many “ums,” there’ll be so much waste. So talk it out. Think about it ahead of time.
[Marc] Yeah. You’ll feel a lot more comfortable on the panel if you feel like you know what you’re going to say next, you’re not stumbling over your words. You’ll have a better experience overall.
[Susan] Don’t read it.
[Marc] Oh, yes, don’t read it.

[Howard] I was on a panel once where the moderator started by reading us a section of a Wikipedia article. That was painful. That was really painful. Marc, what do you look for in a panelist? You put this program together. What sorts of things put people on the panels… On your panels, and what keeps them on your panels?
[Marc] Well, first and foremost, I start by looking at people who are really good at what they do. That might be someone who is an amazing writer or it might be someone who is an expert in some field and has something that’s going to be really valuable to share. Or maybe someone who can just speak about writing really well, even if maybe they haven’t published as many books as the next person. But if they can share that information better, they’re the person I want on the panel. After that, there are things like you have to be someone who’s willing to talk to the audience, and personable. There are exceptions. I understand that some people have discomfort when it comes to talking to strangers they don’t know. But it’s really nice if they can connect with those… With an audience and be able to talk to them a bit. That’s something I definitely look for. And someone who’s nice. Right? I mean, we have to hang out with these people for four days. My goodness. I wonder if this is someone I actually want to hang out with?

[Howard] Susan? As you’ve moderated panels here at GenCon, I mean, don’t drop any names or anything… What are the things that you’ve seen done really well, and how can we emulate them? Who are the panelists that you love to moderate… Well, not who, but what are the sorts of attributes that you love to moderate?
[Susan] I love people who refer to other panelists, who engage in conversation rather than holding a thought in their head that they’re going to say fully. So for instance, if he said something and I responded to it, or if I was saying something and I’m like, “Oh, my God, this relates to something that you do really well,” and then you get a chance to shine. So I like it when it’s collaborative.
[Dan] Yeah. Whenever I’m on a panel, I think about the one scene from Pulp Fiction where she’s interviewing John Travolta with the camera and says, “When you’re in a conversation, do you listen or do you wait to talk?” You can always tell exactly which panelists are listening and which ones are just waiting for their turn to talk.
[Marc] The audience can tell, too. I mean it, I think that’s the thing that’s important, is that it doesn’t just impact the people here, it impacts the people watching. It adds a level of tension to the panel, and you want people to be relaxed and having a good time and really positioned to take that in, so they’re not thinking about their anxiety.

[Howard] As a panelist, are you able to read the audience and tell… I’m not looking at the audience at all, because I don’t want to know what they’re saying. Are you able to read the audience and gauge how you’re being received?
[Susan] You should read the audience and you should read the panelists and you should read the moderator. Because if you’re talking too long, the moderator will be like…
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, I’m so sorry, I can’t duplicate that.
[Howard] That was thrilling.
[Dan] She can stare daggers on command.
[Susan] And then you start clicking your pen… No. You can get very passive aggressive with it. But, generally, read people. And like talk to them before the panel. See what they’re interested in hearing talked about. You don’t want to completely miss the topic that they came to hear. Their eyes will glaze over. They’ll start looking at the moderator and being like [stage whisper] You should really interrupt him.
[Dan] Awesome.
[Susan] I’ve had it happen.
[Howard] I think I may have done it.
[Dan] Awesome. We are going to talk about moderating next, but first, let’s break for our book of the week. Susan, you were going to pitch to us a book that you are currently reading? And loving.

[Susan] Yeah. So I’m not sure how concise this will be. A Darker Shade of Magic. I am absolutely loving it. What actually drew me into it is the first page, which is so gorgeously written that I was like, “Oh, my God, I should give up writing and just read this book forever.” In that, it has this jacket, and it has three sides. That’s just something that you never hear about, and I immediately knew that it had an in-depth interesting magic system, that it was starting with a detail that drew me in. I wanted to know why this person had this jacket, and why they needed to switch sides. It’s incredibly engrossing. It’s about three different worlds, versions of London. Each with varying levels of magic. The connections have been severed between them, but are on their way, it seems, to not be the case anymore.
[Dan] Awesome. Okay. That is A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, who is an incredible writer. You can get a copy of that…
[Howard] You can start a 30-day free trial membership and grab it for free.

[Dan] Wonderful. All right. So let’s talk about moderating for a minute. There’s no… In my mind, there’s no clearer sign that a panel’s going to be terrible than when everybody sits down and says, “Who’s moderating?” Like you were talking earlier about writing some notes down and preparing. You need to prepare as a moderator even more so, I think, than as a panelist. What, in your mind… Let’s start with Marc. What makes a good moderator?
[Marc] If they are Susan Morris.
[Dan] For those of us not blessed to be Susan Morris…
[Marc] Oh, in that case, then…
[Dan] What can we do?
[Marc] What I’m really looking for is someone… One of the things I look to avoid are moderators that believe that they’re there to talk to the audience and are simply going to occasionally allow the other people on the panel to remark on their wisdom. That’s something you want to be careful about, because as a moderator, you are really a servant leader. You’re there to lead them, but you’re there also to serve them by offering them ways to be more effective and to be successful in the panel. So that’s something I really look for.
[Howard] One of my philosophies in moderating, and frankly it’s one of our philosophies in Writing Excuses, is that the other panelists… My job is to prop them up. My job is to help them shine. I’ll never… I don’t want to talk down to them, I don’t want to score points on them, I want everybody to shine even if they’re disagreeing, and especially if they’re disagreeing with me.
[Dan] Because that makes the conversation that much more interesting. Susan, let’s get your take on this. What makes a good moderator?
[Susan] A couple things. Preparation, for sure. I definitely… You want to explore that space, you want to find the dead space ahead of time. You want to talk it out with people. Then, also know the people on your panel. Know what is going to make them shine. Don’t be afraid to be a jerk. Everyone appreciates it when you quiet or transition from the loud person on the panel who isn’t being quiet. Your job is to moderate, it’s not to be a panelist. I think that the more that you can direct attention to them and make them shine, the better it’s going to be.

[Howard] You said something towards the beginning. You know where the dead space is?
[Susan] Yes.
[Howard] I think I understand that principle, but I have no idea how to actually… How do you identify the dead space in a topic? What… How do you research that?
[Susan] So the first thing I do is I actually look up the topic and I see what everyone else has had to say about it. Because I know what I think, but I’m not the sole authority on any topic in writing, it turns out.
[Susan] I write a whole bunch of notes. Then, I actually make around 25 questions that I talk through… Then I have a conversation with someone. I know this is too much. You probably don’t need to do this. I talk with someone and I see what topics we naturally cover. If… Then I ask questions if they don’t get covered. It either sparks conversation or they’re like, “Yeah,” or “No.” It’s just a completely dead topic. It’s just not interesting. That really… That enables you before you get to the panel… Like, for instance, on the Writing the Other panel that we just did, if I may give a specific example. I wrote a bunch of questions. Some of them are really dumb. Like, “Why write the other?” Which hopefully we all know. But it’s a starting point that’s actually discussed on a lot of blogs. It’s a good question, for the people who need it asked, but it’s a dumb question for that panel. Because everyone was there to learn how to write the other. So then, before the panel, you will get through four questions, maybe. So before the panel, circle the ones you really like, the ones you think will really be best. Talk with the panelists, talk with the audience. Find out what they want to hear, and keep it towards that.
[Howard] So, if I understand this correctly, the reason you’re an awesome moderator is because you rehearse moderating the panel with a group of people who are not actually your panelists?
[Susan] Yes. My writing group.
[Howard] Oh, my…
[Dan] That is so brilliant. Like you just…
[Howard] No, seriously.
[Dan] Upstaged everyone that’s been on this stage all day.

[Marc] Can I… I want to offer one thing though that you said that… You said, “Well, you don’t have to.” But you kind of do. Because when I’m looking for a moderator to moderate some of the most high profile, some of the very best guests we have, I look to someone like Susan. I look to someone who’s going to go up there and do right by us and make us as a con look good, as well as making everyone else look good. So that extra preparation means that when I’m sitting there going, “Well, Terry Brooks is our author Guest of Honor. I wonder who I should have moderate?” I’m like, “Well, yeah, I’ll put Susan there for this one.” I mean, these are the sort of things that I think about, and it makes a big difference what she does. It helps her, too.
[Howard] As somebody who studied marketing on the job, what you’re describing is… What you’re saying, essentially, is that the moderator’s responsibility is a marketing and branding responsibility. I am boosting the brand of the panelists, I’m boosting the brand of the convention, and a bad moderator can hurt that brand, can damage the show.
[Marc] Yeah, that’s absolutely true. So that’s why you’re constantly watching and tweaking and seeing what works and what doesn’t. When you find someone who does things well, you use them. You give them whatever it takes to make sure that they keep coming back and working with you on that. A lot of these folks are writers too, and it doesn’t hurt to be able to sit down and have a conversation with some of the people you’re moderating. It helps your career quite a bit, sometimes, so…

[Dan] Now, I’m going to exercise some moderation skills really quick. The two of you just cut off Susan three times in a row. Susan, were you going… It looked like you kept trying to talk?
[Marc] I’m sorry.
[Susan] Well, it’s funny, because I had two thoughts there. No, it was great, because I realized I was talking a lot. The two things I wanted to mention were, you don’t have to get everything out about a topic. It’s okay to not cover something. You won’t get everything. And I think so much of our need to talk comes from that. I didn’t talk about this, and it’s so important! Write it down. That helps. Then, the second thing is, set expectations at the beginning. If you’re professional, if you greet them, if you offer the panelists like what style of moderation do they want, it makes it immediately apparent that you’re taking it seriously. Then, if you set ground rules for the audience, if you address them saying, “I will be moderating this,” tell them the name, tell them what they’re getting into. It sets a certain level of expectation. I’ve found that behavior from everyone seems to be better, the more that I set expectations.
[Howard] One of the things that I do when I moderate is I tell the audience, “If you’re going to ask questions, be sure to phrase them in the form of a question. I really do not want to have to cut anybody off when you’re making a long-winded comment, but I came here to listen to these panelists. I, as the moderator, very selfishly want to hear what these people have to say. So I’m going to cut you off, so I can listen to them.” That way, I’m the designated jerk.

[Dan] Sweet. I strongly suspect that these… This 15 minutes will become an audio textbook conventions will use for their panelists and moderators as they’re setting up their programs. I certainly hope so. Because we’ve gotten absolutely brilliant stuff from both of you. Thank you very much for being on the show.
[Marc] Thank you.
[Susan] Thanks so much for having us.

[Dan] It’s our delight to have you here. Now. I believe Marc is going to give us… Send us home with a writing prompt.
[Marc] You’ve been invited, as an author, to attend Bob Con. All expenses paid. You arrive at Bob’s house, and realize why it’s called Bob Con. How do you get out of it, and how does our hero escape?
[Laughter, applause]
[Dan] Well, you are out of excuses.
[Dan] So, go write.