If you’re an author or aspiring to be one, chances are that at some point you’ll be asked to participate in Author Panels. Author panels are staples at Conventions, Workshops and Literary Festivals and give authors and readers the opportunity to question each other and explore topics from Characterization to Genre to Research and more. For extroverted authors like myself, panels aren’t as intimidating as they might be for the introverts. Regardless, panels are an important way to let people know you and what you’re about. In the process, you can either attract or drive away readers, publishers and more. So it’s a good idea to approach them with the same professionalism with which you’d approach anything else in a serious career. Here are some tips for Panel Preparation:
1) Research The Topic–Sometimes you get a topic you feel extremely knowledgable about. Other times you get a panel topic you feel less confident in. Research is a great way to refresh. From rereading your own books and searching the web to reviewing favorite author’s works, you can help yourself out by taking the time to refresh your memory on the topic.
2) Make Up Questions You’d Ask If You Were In The Audience–If you’ve made it far enough to be invited on a panel, chances are you’ve been in the audience before. As part of your preparations, it’s a good idea to remember what that’s like and invent questions you’d ask panelists if you were in the audience at your own upcoming panel. Write them down and take them with you. This will also come in handy if, as I did, you get nominated to moderate your panel.
3) Schedule Time To Relax Pre-Panel–Don’t allow your agenda to be so packed that you’re feeling exhausted and out of breath as you arrive at the panel. Even if it means skipping out on attending another event you wish you could attend, take the time to catch your breath and relax so you’re at your best when it’s time to be a panelist.
4) Take Water–While some places provide panelists with water, it’s a good idea to have your own. Your voice will get dry really quick so it’s best to be prepared to keep your vocal chords and mouth well lubricated. It also helps you relax when you don’t have the distraction of a dry throat.
5) Remember You Are Not Alone–Both in nervousness and in presence, you won’t be alone. Most panels have multiple authors, so remember that if you don’t have something good to say, you can allow others to talk while you collect your thoughts. Playing off others’ comments, in fact, is a great inspiration and great way to sound smarter than you really are.
6) Don’t Be Afraid To Decline–If you have the misfortune of being given no choice of panels or being assigned to a panel where you lack the expertise you feel would allow you to contribute, talk with the organizers and opt out. Explain your situation. Be polite. Thank them for thinking of you. Then politely ask if you could bow out. Most people want to support you, not make you uncomfortable or look bad. They’ll understand. And you’ll feel a lot more relaxed for the other programming you’re responsible for.
7) Practice Your Anwers–Admit it. We all talk to ourselves sometimes. Panel preparation is the perfect excuse to do so. Practice answers to imagined questions. Practice discussing craft related to the panel topic. Practice talking slowly and clearly. Just as actors rehearse and even pastors, you shouldn’t dismiss it either. After all, practice for readings is vital to their success. (Unless you’ve done dozens and can do it in your sleep). Panels are a professional opportunity to reach a new audience and attract readers. Treat them as such and be professional. Rehearse.
8 ) Remember To Listen–Not only can you reveal your knowledge on panels, you can reveal your character. Don’t make it all about you. Try not to get long winded in giving answers. Listen to and interact with your fellow panelists. Take notes if it’s appropriate. Panels are a great opportunity to support one another. And, in the process, you’ll have the chance to learn a lot, too.
9) Practice Your Smile Face–Okay, it sounds silly but there’s nothing worse than scowling without being aware when you’re on a panel. Sometimes you can’t help it because someone will say something that sets you off. But in general, it’s good to be smiling and friendly in composure while sitting in front of the audience at a panel. So practice good posture and a smiling demeanor. That way it will be more natural and easy to adopt when you’re on a panel. You’ll come across a lot better.
10) Research Your Fellow Panelists–Most of the time you’ll have access to a list of panelists before you arrive at the Convention, Workshop, etc. Take the time to research the fellow panelists. For one, it will help you understand what they’re about and where they’re expertise might lie. This will be especially important if you wind up moderating. For another, it gives you a chance to network better as well as better interact with them. That just makes your presence more fulfilling for everyone, including yourself.
11) Dress Comfortably–Cut off shorts, hole filled jeans: a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable. Perhaps Cosplay is your thing. Even then, be sure what you wear to panels allows you freedom to breath and relax. You’ll need it. There’s nothing worse than being center stage with an itch or other discomfort. Your nerves will be bad enough, so don’t make it harder on yourself. Business casual is always a great idea. If you wear something distinctive to stand out like bright colors or a particular shirt, try and find one that’s still comfortable. Comfort is essential to relaxing and enjoying the experience.
12) Plan Examples From Your Work–Okay, it’s not about you. And constantly talking about your own work appears presumptuous and pushy. But still, planning examples for the panel topic from your own work is vital. After all, the purpose of doing panels is ultimately to sell books, and while your personality and the quality of your answers will attract readers, nothing attracts readers like your work. So plan a few key examples you can use in answering questions posed during the panel. You don’t have to use them all. Some questions you anticipate just may not come up. But it’s better to have well thought out, concise examples you can pull out as needed to give the audience a glimpse of your work than to wing it on the spot. It makes you sound more professional, too, and more relaxed.
I’m sure people far more experienced with panels can add plenty more examples, and I hope some will do so in the comments. I have ten years’ experience as a teacher, trainer and lecturer, and have been on a number of author panels in launching my novel as well as attending numerous panels as an audience member at Conventions, Workshops and Literary Festivals. I hope these tips are helpful to you. Panels are a great opportunity to grow. They allow you to think about your craft and refine your understanding of it. They enable you to help others. And they train you to get comfortable presenting yourself and your work in marketing. All three are essential to the success of your writing career.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.