Monday, March 06, 2006

Conventions, Panels, & You

I've been to a lot of conventions, and I've been on a lot of panels. I've seen writers excel at their panel gigs, and I've seen writers fail miserably.

A panel is a valuable opportunity to shine. Giving good panel will help fans remember you and your brand, which will lead to selling books.

Barry Eisler has some guidelines for moderating panels, and I agree with his points. Many of these apply to being a panelist as well, but not all of them.

Here then is a Panelist's manifesto.

1. Be able to describe your book or series in 20 seconds or less. Whatever topic your panel is about, the ultimate reason you're at this conference is to self-promote. This is your chance to pitch the book to potential readers. Here's my pitch:

"My name is JA Konrath, and I write the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series. The books are scary, like James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, but funny like Evanovich and Dave Barry."

That's all you need. More than that, you'll lose your audience.

2. Once you've pitched your book, stop pitching your book. After you do your 20 second sound byte, stop trying to sell. Your job is to be entertaining. Focus on that. If a question directly pertains to one of your books, that's fine. If you want to make a point using one of your books, that's fine. But less is more. If you ramble too much about your books, the audience will lose interest.

3. Be funny. If you can't be funny, be brief. Studies have shown that if you can't get to the point in ten seconds, you've already lost your audience. (These studies were conducted by me, watching innumerable panels.) The audience is interested in your answers, but only if those answers are entertaining. When you're on a panel, you're on stage. That means you're meant to perform. If you don't do well in front of an audience, let brevity be the true essence of wit.

4. About that brevity thing. Sometimes your answers may tend to run long. Try to curtail this. You think you're more interesting than you actually are. There can be anywhere from three to ten other panelists, and they all deserve equal time---don't infringe upon theirs.

5. Speak like a professional. Make sure you're loud enough so everyone can hear you. Avoid speech hesitations like um, ah, and uh. Sit up straight. Make eye contact with as many people in the audience as you can. Smile. Laugh. You should only speak if you have something to enhance the conversation. Many writers feel they have to get "their time in." If that time is boring, they're doing more harm than good.

6. Engage the audience. Public speaking isn't a monologue; it's a dialog where half of the conversation (the audience) isn't very vocal. But give and take is happening. You want your audience to be responsive, to show their interest through body language. Do the people look bored? Get them to pay attention. Is someone burning to ask a question? Stop talking and let them ask it. Pay attention to their reactions and responses. Your responses won't be remembered, but your enthusiasm will be. Be confidant, not cocky. Before a panel, I try to shake the hand of everyone in the audience, and hand out a signed coaster. This gets them on my side before I say word one.

7. Look professional. Dress for success. Appearance means a lot. Business casual or nicer. Pay attention to how you're sitting, and what you're doing, the entire time you're on the panel, even if you're not the one speaking.

8. Know the topic, don't read the topic. You will be asked to appear on panels that have nothing to do with your books. This happens. When it does, you need to prepare beforehand and make sure you have something interesting to say about this topic. But DO NOT READ YOUR ANSWER! It's okay to have notes, but once you start speaking, you must never refer to those notes. Reading is not engaging. Glancing down at a piece of paper is distracting to the audience.

9. Talk when you need to talk, but otherwise wait your turn. When the moderator, a panelist, or an audience member asks you something, you should always respond, but the length of the response should depend on if you truly have something to say about the topic. Just because you have the chance to speak does not mean you should speak. Passing off questions to other people on the panel who might be better suited to answer them is a classy move. Interrupting other panelists constantly with your monologues is bad bad bad.

10. Interrupt when needed. Sometimes a panelist is monopolizing the panel, and the moderator isn't doing anything about it. Sometimes someone says something that screams for a response or a joke. Remember why you're there: to entertain. If you have a joke, say it. If you disagree with someone, start a polite argument then and there. It makes panels more interesting, and more fun. Lee Goldberg is brilliant with one liners, and he always makes the panel fun. David Morrell isn't afraid to disagree with his fellow panelists, and this always makes the discussion more entertaining and exciting.

11. Help the moderator. Sometimes your moderator will suck. If the ship is sinking because the captain is incompetent, do something or you'll go down with the ship. Start asking questions of your fellow panelists, or of the audience. Interrupt the moderator if she's talking too much about herself, reading bios or questions, seems ill-prepared, can't keep the discussion going, or is otherwise crashing and burning. Also, if the moderator doesn't say anything about herself (when I moderate, I rarely even introduce myself) it's a classy move to ask the moderator some occasional questions. If another panelist isn't getting a chance to speak, ask her questions to get her to speak. If another panelist is rambling, stop it somehow.

12. Bring copy of your book with you. Many in the audience won't know you, or your books. Having your book next to you will help them find it when they're back in the dealer room. It's subtle, subconscious brand reinforcement, and it links your face to your cover.

13. Stick around. If you did well, people will approach you after the panel has ended. They'll ask follow-up questions, bring you things to sign, or just want to shake your hand and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Bask in this, and thank them for coming. Also thank the moderator if they did a good job.

14. Get feedback. The best way to know how you did is to watch a videotape of it. You can learn a lot watching yourself. The next best way is to ask a member of the audience whom you trust. Ask how you could improve. Don't settle for less than the truth. We learn from criticism, not praise.

Remember that facts and opinions aren't interesting. Personality, humor, and conflicts are interesting.

You're there to sell, but you shouldn't be selling, you should be entertaining. And if you're entertaining, you'll wind up selling.


I'm planning on sticking this manifesto up on my website, and I'd like to hear some comments/additions/disagreements. Many of you have done panels, and watched panels, both good ones and bad ones. Am I missing anything?


PJ Parrish said...

Good advice, Joe.
Just back from SleuthFest where I shared the dias with Linda Fairstein talking about suspense. We had a great time, cracked jokes, gave new writers lots of advice. It was good chemistry and it helped that Janet Evanovitch was in the audience to lend some special comments -- and some good-natured digging at James Patterson.

Your comments about helping moderators out is especially important. Some are terrific. But some aren't experienced, some aren't very good. You have to step in and help when you can.

Sandra Ruttan said...

The first author panel I ever went to, sitting a few feet away from my literary god in a packed auditorium, he asked me a question.

I was so startled.

But it turned into a few seconds of dialogue and people I didn't know came up to me afterwards and said, "he really seemed to enjoy that."

And I think that it may not always be necessary to be funny, depending on the topic, but what I think works really really well is being conversational. Not sounding like it's a lecture, but sounding like you're sitting in the living room with a group of friends sharing thoughts. People really warm to you then, and even if you speak solo, you can do this. Alexander McCall Smith is a really good example of that.

And above all else, an ability to laugh at yourself. The best line in the "sex and violence: where do we draw the line" panel last year was when Mark Billingham (moderator) said he'd only left about 15 minutes for sex because it wasn't very important to what he does, and Val McDermid chimed in with, "So I've heard." The rapport between the authors was fantastic, really entertaining.

And I should add it was clear to me, for moderator advice, that Mark was familiar with the works of the authors on the panel and he asked pointed questions to make sure everyone got included. So he did a fabulous job moderating. He gets a 'good job' sticker.

Anonymous said...

This is a very helpful list, Joe. I want to add a few things:
-Make contact with at least your moderator if not the rest of the panel before the conference, to be sure you are speaking about the same topic as everyone else. (and at the same place, same time,etc.)

-Offer some sort of handout. Even a business card with your website and a list of your books on the back (or the cover of a book as Barry Eisler hands out) gives audience members something to remember. Librarians always have several handouts per speaker, and if any are going to be in your audience, they will expect something like that. (I will sometimes raffle galleys or posters at the end of panels I speak on.)

-Be prepared to talk about the subject for the rest of the conference. I recently talked about YA lit at a conference including a booktalk of some of my favorite YA mysteries. For the rest of the conference people were stopping me to ask about those titles and other points I made. The first comment was from an author I revere, and of course I could not remember a book title I booktalked! I kept a few handouts with me at all times after the first one!

Unknown said...

Joe, you must be prescient.

I’m at LEFT COAST CRIME in Bristol, England ( ) next week and I'm on the following panel:

Saturday, 18th of March. 4.30 – 5.30 ITW: IN FROM THE COLD - THE SPY THRILLER TODAY (Barry Eisler ,Gayle Lynds, David Morrell, Pat Mullan -- Moderator: Ali Karim)

Thanks for the advice. See you in June at THRILLERFEST..


Jude Hardin said...

You might want to add to your manifesto: No matter how big and famous you are, never talk "down" to an audience member.

I've seen big name authors and agents answer audience questions with the attitude that they really shouldn't be bothered with such nonsense. Non one's going to remember much of what they said, but they will remember the attitude. For an author especially, this could generate negative word of mouth and ultimately hurt sales.

Treat your audience (made up mostly of unpublished writers and fans who have paid to be there) with respect, and they'll remember you for it. Maybe they'll even buy one of your books.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'll come armed with questions to BoucherCon, Mark.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And Pat, from what I hear, you have an exceptional moderator there. I believe I'll get a chance to meet Ali at Harrogate this year. Just ban John Rickards from attending or asking questions and you'll be fine.

Adam Hurtubise said...

I've done panels as a political operative for other political operatives.

The most important thing I learned, Joe, is what you said already:

1. Be funny.
2. If you can't be funny, be brief.
3. If you can't be brief, get off the stage.

Nice post.


Anonymous said...

You need a hook handy for #8. If you have to read your answer you shouldn't be up there.

JA Konrath said...

Good suggestions so far--I'll incorporate them into the final version. Keep them coming.

Unknown said...

Yes, Sandra, I'm looking forward to meeting Ali... and John Rickards (with some trepidation)..he's in DUBLIN NOIR with me and says in his bio that "he drinks an obscene amoount of Guinness" Given that March 17 is St. Pat's Day, do you think I'd better hide somewhere?

Slan, Pat.

Anonymous said...

Joe, you really hit on some important stuff here. I've sat through some brutal sessions over the years, listening to even the best writers display their weakness in public speaking. A good speaker really can sell their books. I've bought books I might otherwise never have (and have never regretted the purchase).

"Anonymous" makes a really good point here about contacting the moderators and other panelists beforehand, when possible. That's a kind thought, but I also think that the moderator or organizers must take on some responsibility here, too.

My wife and I are helping organize a writers conference here in Richmond for October, and over the years I've attended it, I've come to appreciate just how much a moderator can make or break a session (no matter how good the panelists). This will be the first year I actually moderate a session, and the prospect scares the beard hairs right off of my face. Hopefully, I'll have some folks on that panel who think along the lines of PJ Parrish, so they can bail me out if I tank!

Mindy Tarquini said...

Designer jock-straps, however, are acceptable.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Pat, I'd look out. He actually went off the alcohol to gear up for LCC.

And I just interviewed him for Crimespree - he's the first of my "victims" to come away with blackmail material on me.

(Really, a very very nice guy. Disgustingly talented.)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bill, is that my Richmond, as in the one I flew out of Sunday on my way to Calgary? Or another one?

Anonymous said...

Joe -- great points, and great follow-up comments. My only disagreement (see? It is entertaining when we disagree!) might be about bringing one's books to the panel. Bringing them along is fine, but I don't like when people prop them up on the table. Propped up books tend to separate the panel from the audience even more than the table is already doing, plus it always feels a little cheezy to me. But I admit this is just a question of taste, and I understand the theory that having the book propped up there helps audience members remember it better later. Still, when I'm in the audience, I respond most strongly to the panelists who are classy and confident enough to win me over with their insights, wit, and personality, without the use of props.

But again, I confess that this is one of those points that might just be a question of personal preference.

Unknown said...


I agree with not placing the books on the panel. When I listen to a panel, I'm not really interested in the books they've written (although I'll make sure I know that before I sit in on the session). No, I'm more interested in people's stories, in the 'life of a writer', in the good and bad of getting published, in the discourse. I remember a panel on playwriting at LIM in Chicago last year that had a steady-as-you-go feel to it - until I compared playwriting in Ireland, its grass roots connection and universal appeal - and asked what had happened in America to that connection these days. That took the panel off on an entirely unplanned direction but one that generated audience participation and animated the entire session.

So - I see what you've written and I see the rules. But isn't it great just to throw all those rules out the window sometimes?


...I agree with someone who suggested that panel members should leave a card - or a catchy one-pager about themselves on the table at the back of the room (assuming there is a table there). People who are interested can pick one of those up and peruse the links to your website and maybe your most recent book much later after they return home.

Joan Reeves said...

For some reason, your first few sentences reminded me of "A Song For You." (I've been so many places in my life and time. I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes.) You could easily sing the lead-in to your blog entry. Excellent advice.

Millenia Black said...

NO gum.
NO candy.

I won't mention names - but - I have a pet-peeve about people talking with gum or candy in their mouths.

It's so unprofessional, too.

JA Konrath said...

Re: Propping up your books.

When the audience who attented your panel (and liked you) is in the dealer's room, they might remember your name and book title. If not, they can look it up in the program book, and then ask the bookseller if they carry your title.

But that's two more hurdles to have prospective buyers leap through in order to make a sale.

Showing them your book cover makes your book much easier to find in the dealer room--the buyer won't have to ask, or have to remember your name, because visual memory (what we see) is stronger than auditory (what we hear---names and titles.)

Plus, when the buyer is in the deal room just browsing, they have a much better chance of picking up your book without making any title or name connection, because their subconscious remembers they've seen it before.

EVERY commerical on TV shows the product. That's the point. When out our publishers place ads for out books, the cover is usually the largest thing on the ad.

I don't think the difference between sales gained or lost is dramatic either way, but any time you have an opportunity to show off your book cover to a crowd, I suggest doing it.

The downside--potentially appearing cheezy--doesn't really make sense, especially if you're like me and hang out in a mall chain store for 8 hours, shoving your book into the hands of everyone who walks in.

I think a better rule of thumb than never doing it is seeing if other authors on the panel are doing it. If three people have their books up, and you don't, you won't appear confident--you'll appear forgetful. But if you're the only one with your book on the table, it looks odd.

JA Konrath said...

I'm going to rewrite the manifesto using these suggestions---the no gum and candy rule MUST be included, along with many others.

Stacey Cochran said...

I love being on a good panel. I did a good one at my very first HorrorCon "Animals in Horror Fiction." That was memorable.

How are moderators chosen? Do you sign up for the job, or is it assigned?


P.S. My wife and I sold the house over the weekend, btw. We're moving to North Carolina.

Anonymous said...

Joe -- I see your point on prop-ups. Reasonable people can differ on this one (am I actually saying this? What happened to my inner curmudgeon?).

But I like it when I'm the only panelist without a propped-up book. It happens all the time. Different is memorable. As for whether the audience interprets my book's absence as an expression of my forgetfulness or of my confidence, I can't say for sure. But I would bet my presence and delivery will influence the interpretation.


JA Konrath said...

Barry, the next time we do a panel together, I'm placing a copy of Bloody Mary in front of you while you're speaking. :)

Anonymous said...

At last month's Love Is Murder, I moderated my first mystery conference panel. Barry was on the panel (Note to moderators: If you get lucky and have great panelists like Barry, your job is pretty easy) and he sent me the Moderator's Manifesto prior to the event when I asked for his thoughts. I followed the manifesto's advice and the panel was a success. So first, kudos to Barry and his co-authors for that.

And kudos to you for this, Joe. Developing a Panelist's Manifesto is the other side of the equation.

My only suggestion is that the advice to be entertaining should include, "while being informative."

Yes, you have to entertain, or you're dead in the water. But many people in the audience are unpublished writers looking for advice. If they go to a panel called "Approaching Point of View" and they get a panel of comedians doing a Marx Brothers bit, they may laugh but they also may walk away feeling that they just flushed $200 down the toilet.


Amy said...

More about book props -

When I gave the YA Lit booktalk, I was the only panelist who brought in copies of the books I was discussing. Now I realize there may be a difference when it is the author talking about her own books, but I felt it caught the attention of the audience to have the books there. It also helped the audience take YA books seriously, as many have sharp, thriller-like covers. I think folks were expecting Nancy Drew.

From an audience perspective, I like to see the books by the authors more than the table tents which usually don't stand up...

Anonymous said...

Joe said:

Barry, the next time we do a panel together, I'm placing a copy of Bloody Mary in front of you while you're speaking. :)

I'll sign it if you do... :-D

Sean, thanks for the kind words. That panel had a terrific moderator -- don't sell him short. Pat, looking forward to seeing you next week.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your many many tips - and, as we say in Ireland, for the 'craic'!

Looking forward to seeing you next week. From what Sean says, with you on the panel it looks like we've got a winner already ..


Anonymous said...

Wow! Fast moving thread here. Sorry it's taken so long to reply, Sandra. The Richmond in question would be Richmond, Virginia.