How to chair a panel at a writing festival

Saturday 7th of May 2016 – I had the opportunity to chair my very first panel at the speculative fiction/fantasy festival held at SA Writers Centre with the lovely Gillian Rubinstein aka Lian Hearn and our very own South Australian writer, Tony Shillitoe.

Getting to meet two incredible writers with very different experiences and opinions, and to engage them in a discussion about the growing number of crossover readers that comprise the current YA market – a percentage believed to be as high as 55% – was enlightening and one which I can’t wait to repeat should the opportunity present itself again.

While I was extremely nervous about hosting a panel, I quickly learnt that writers are not only generous with their knowledge of the industry and their craft, but with their understanding and helpfulness. Most have been on both sides of the table and are more than willing to help steer the conversation. Here are some of the most important things I learnt from the experience:

  • Research the authors. Make sure you have a good knowledge of their work, their views, their expertise. Watch previous interviews (podcasts are great) to see how they address questions. Ie: Are they softly spoken? Are they animated? Do they like to joke around? Do they give short answer questions or do they elaborate on topics?
  • Research the topic. Example: When thinking about YA crossovers, I made sure to have a thorough knowledge of the main conversations concerning YA literature such as censorship, marketing, themes and changing technologies. I looked at past and current trends as well as future outlooks for the market.
  • Know your audience. What’s the demographic? Are they majority writers or majority readers? What specific areas would they be interested in? Craft-related advice? Industry knowledge? Or do they just want to hear from their favourite authors and learn more about their books and lives?
  • For a 40-60 minute panel, write around 4-5 open-ended questions that could lead to smaller investigative follow-up questions. Try to vary question depth and involvement required by the panelists. Start with some easier, ‘warm-up’ questions and build to the high concept questions. Try to vary mode of questioning (How do you feel about … ? Why do you think … ? Do you agree with … ? What are your thoughts/opinions …? Can you explain … ? Have you done …. ? Is there an example of … ?)
  • If possible, try to introduce yourself to the panelists at least twenty minutes prior to the session to get to know them, to discuss few key topics that both parties would like to cover and, most importantly, to get a feel the group dynamics.
  • When introducing the panelists, keep their introductions brief and relevant to the topic being discussed. Example: if you’re talking about YA crossovers, reference their YA works. The audience wants to know that the author they’re listening to actually has experience in the field they are discussing.
  • During the session, allow the conversation to flow naturally and for the authors to explore larger concepts and ideas. However, try not to let the conversation go too off topic or else the audience isn’t getting what they came to hear.
  • Listen to what the panelists are saying but feel confident to offer alternative views or opinions in a way that encourages interesting and positive discussion.
  • Try to avoid talking about yourself or monopolising the conversation. This isn’t about you.
  • Keep track of the time. If you’re using a watch, place it on the table so you can see it without being obvious. You don’t want to be bringing your wrist to your face every time you need to check the time. It’s distracting and can make people think they need to wrap up.
  • Bring a pen to jot down key words or ideas should the conversation spark a new question or concept.
  • Allow 10-15 minutes for audience questions at the end.
  • Be prepared to clarify/repeat audience questions.
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4 thoughts on “How to chair a panel at a writing festival

  1. Roman Skrzypczak says:

    Well done Liana Great advice and I must say very generous as well I’m sure it will assist anyone else facing this sort of challenge Roman

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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