Last weekend I was given the privilege of being a guest author at a writing convention. It was fun. I met a lot of people and caught up with several friends in the writing community. I spent some time on a few panels and watched some others. One thing that struck me was a common theme that I’ve noticed at a lot of conventions lately, and that’s that many people don’t quite know how to act on a panel. It was a minority of panelists that missed the memo or never received it. I’d say 1 in 6. Unfortunately, when most panels have 5-6 members, that means that most panels had at least 1 member who wasn’t versed in proper panel etiquette. So allow me to explain a few things to remember in case you find yourself at a convention as a guest speaker/panelist.
1: Be Approachable – Many people attend conventions to spend time with fandom and meet some of its movers and shakers. If you’re a panelist or speaker that means you fall into the category of Mover or Shaker. Congratulations. People will want to meet you, and chances are high that you want people to know you, like you, and hopefully buy your book. Connecting with fans at conventions is easy. They’re literally all around you. So mingle. Be approachable.
I often describe working a convention as a 48 Hour Job Interview. You’re here to impress. If you’re like me and have a “resting bitch face” remember to keep it in check. I can’t help it if my neutral face looks like I’m considering murder. I’m not (usually). And I don’t want that moment when someone works up the nerve to say hello to me to be dashed because I look angry. So I smile. I smile a lot. By the weekend’s end my face hurts.
So smile. Keep yourself in approachable places where fans and potential fans might see you and talk to you. Try to be aware of where you are so that it’s easy as possible for people to meet you and hopefully like you enough to buy your book.
2: Arrive On Time – When it comes time for your panel or presentation, you need to be on time. Remember, you’re working this convention and Panel-Time is Go-Time. Show up before the panel starts. Get set up, maybe chat with people in the audience. People are depending on you: the Convention, the Guests, the Other Panelists. Don’t make them wait. Don’t show up three minutes in with lame excuses and interrupting someone else’s introduction because they eventually had to start without you.
Once again, this convention weekend is a job interview. You wouldn’t show up late to a job interview, would you?
3: End On Time – This might be jumping ahead, but while we’re on the subject of your panel/presentation’s time-slot, you need to end it on time. I know that the schedule block shows you there for an hour, but it’s wrong. You have 50 minutes. At 45 minutes you need to be wrapping it up, maybe take that “One Last Question.” At 50 minutes you need to thank everyone for coming and dismiss. At 55 minutes you need to be out of the room for the next panelists using the room to have time to set up and for your co-panelists and audience to run off to the restrooms and then maybe to another panel/presentation.
It’s extremely rude to hog the room for a wide variety of reasons. But one of the most important is that if your panel runs late, you risk the serious potential of throwing the carefully oiled machine of con-scheduling completely off track. If you force the panel or presentation behind you to start 5 minutes late because they couldn’t setup in time or because they had to awkwardly ask you to move a conversation outside, then they now run the high risk of running late, as well. Not just for your room, but your other panelists and the guests will be arriving late to their next panels. A domino-effect can happen and no one wants that. So, watch the clock and end ten minutes before the next panel begins. This isn’t a request.
4: Share the Stage – If you’re giving a 1-person presentation, then awesome. Have fun. But if you’re on a multi-person panel, then remember that every single person up there is not only another convention guest, but also a Mover and Shaker like you. Be aware if you’re talking too much. Let everyone speak. Try not to speak more than everyone. Many people in the audience came to see your co-panelists. They’re not here to see you, but this is your chance to make a good impression and win them over. So don’t be remembered as the jerk who hogged the stage and didn’t let anyone else speak. Interact with your co-panelists, have a dialogue, endear yourself to your co-panelists and the audience.
For the love of God, don’t steamroll your co-panelists. Trust me, no one is impressed and it doesn’t look as cool as you think it does. Be polite. The people on stage are your partners and co-workers. Be a good partner.
If you’re a bad partner, trust me, all the other Movers and Shakers are going to hear about it, and that might hurt your chances of a convention invite in the future.
5: Your Time On The Panel Is Not The Time to Self-Promote – This might come as a shock to you, but unless the panel is clearly described as being about you and about your book, then it’s not. Most panels are over a wider topic in the genre, the fandom, or the industry. You were brought in as a panelist or speaker on this subject because of your knowledge and expertise. And while yes, you may think that this is the perfect time to plug your book every 3 seconds, it’s actually not. This is where you need to address your vast expertise on the topic and not yourself.
For example: I was recently on a panel about Fantastic Setting. While I have written a fantastic setting or two, I never once mentioned my own work. I spoke about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clive Barker, William Gibson, Anne Rice, Mark Twain, and Scott Lynch. I explained what made them good and what we can learn from them. After it was done, I met fans who liked what I had to say, complimented my knowledge and analysis of the subject, and I even sold a couple books. Had I instead used my time on stage to lay out my own books, people would have zoned out and stopped listening because that’s not why they were there.
I understand the desire to link the topic to your own book because obviously the audience is interested in this topic and therefore might like your book, but please resist. You were selected for the panel because of your expertise that allowed you to write this book. This is where you need to let that expertise shine. If you impress your audience with your vast knowledge on the topic, then they are more likely to buy your book than if you just tell them you wrote a book. Panels last about 50 minutes. You get about 30 seconds during your panelist intro to say “I wrote a book”, and then the rest of the panel is about your expertise. After the panel or between panels you can self-promo to your heart’s content. That’s why you’re here. Your knowledge that you and add to the panel itself is why the convention invited you and that is NOT the time to talk about you and your book. This is paying your dues to the convention for inviting you. It’s NOT a sale-pitch.
“But what if someone asks a direct question about my book?” you ask.
Good question. In the event someone asks about your book or how you handled a topic in your book, you have been given audience permission to discuss it. This is not free-reign. This is a 30-second window. Answer the question and then move it off of yourself. Maybe even bounce the question on a co-panelist to see how they addressed the issue in their own work.
EXCEPTION: Like with writing, every rule has an exception. If you speak about a mistake you made in your book and how you learned from it, then feel free to mention it if it relates to the topic and as long as you are sure that you’re not twisting it into a “clever sales-pitch” of “Buy my Book”. Trust me, the audience and your co-panelists can tell the difference.
So now you know. As long as you can stick to these five simple rules, you’ll have a lot of fun at the convention and might find yourself invited to even more.