Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How to Successfully Participate in a Panel Discussion by Gayle Trent

I daresay that someday you will be invited to participate in a panel discussion at a non-virtual writers' conference. (If you're a published author and plan on attending a conference, be sure to ask the event planners how to be part of a panel discussion. It's a wonderful way for you to get to know readers.) Here are some tips on successfully participating in a panel discussion.

THE MODERATOR: A successful panel discussion begins with the moderator. The moderator should be mindful of each person on the panel and remember everyone has something to contribute. The moderator of a panel for which I participated contacted the panel members several weeks prior to the panel. He asked panelists to contribute questions for the discussion. As he was unfamiliar with my work, I sent him a copy of Between A Clutch and A Hard Place.

What if you're asked to moderate a panel? I suggest familiarizing yourself with the other panelists, finding out what they write, and asking them to help out with questions and what direction they anticipate the discussion going in. For example, I moderated two panels at the Southern Publishers & Writers Expo. One was on crafting nonfiction. I worked up a list of questions and, closer to the Expo, I submitted the questions to the panelists to see if they had additional areas they'd like covered during the discussion.

Be sure to leave time for questions from the audience. Some of the most probing, informative questions (and subsequent answers) of my aforementioned panel discussion were generated by audience members; and they were questions none of the writers would've thought to ask.

For example, one of the audience members asked if any of us had been contacted by law enforcement agencies because we have accessed potentially harmful information. All the writers said "no" but I added that I'd undergone an FBI background check when I attended the forensics and biometrics fellowship at West Virginia University. I also related the story about how I'd called the FBI when I was writing When Darkness Falls to ask how a body that had been frozen would look. The FBI referred me to a pathologist who said mine was the SECOND strangest question she'd ever received. (No, she wouldn't tell me Number One.)

YOUR INTRODUCTION: If you're familiar with "Clutch," you know it's a comedic mystery. However, the panel was on technology in mysteries. When I was introduced, the moderator mentioned the technology in my book was via the heroine's granddaughter who helped out using computer technology. "Clutch" has very little technology in the plot. In fact, the story probably uses less technology than anything I've ever written. Upon being introduced, each author was given an opportunity to tell a little about him/herself. I explained that I also do freelance writing, that most of my technology experience is derived from researching nonfiction articles, and that my articles have appeared in Law and Order Magazine and P.I. Magazine.

PANEL PARTICIPATION: You'll probably find your fellow panelists fascinating. I did. Our panel included a forensic psychologist and an author who restores classic Rolls Royces (so does her protagonist). Don't be afraid to lend them your support. This is a wonderful opportunity to network, exchange information, and learn. Whatever you do, don't monopolize the discussion and ostracize your fellow panelists.

While it can be intimidating to sit on a panel and look out upon a sea of mostly unfamiliar faces, take comfort in the fact that you aren't alone. If you haven't spoken before an audience very many times, this is an excellent way to learn from other professionals and to gain valuable speaking experience.


  1. Very good points, Gayle! A good moderator makes a huge difference - someone who knows questions to ask to bring the most interesting facts from the panelists, and who also can control the occasional panelist who won't stop talking. I've had a couple of great panel experiences and several very frustrating ones. I look at every one as a good learning experience. And I love the Q&A from the audience.

  2. Me, too, Dana. I always feel like that's the best part.

  3. Hopefully someday we'll be on a panel together! I swear I'll be a good panel buddy! :-) If you bring me cake. heheheh...

  4. All I can say is that if I ever get on a panel, I hope I'm not the panel hog. But I wonder if the panel hog knows he (or she, I'm equal opportunity here) is being a hog?

    Very interesting stuff, Gayle!

  5. Cathy, a very good question. But if one person talks for a full half of the pane and there are four panelists, I sort of feel they have to have a clue that they're hogging it.
    I was on a panel with someone who talked so much, one of the audience members actually raised her hand and said she wanted to hear my answer to the previous question...

  6. Excellent tips Gayle.

    I've been on both sides of the fence and I think I like moderating better.

    A good moderator, will make sure the panel hog gives the other members a chance to speak. Sometimes people get so excited they forget the workshop isn't about them.