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There's been a bit of discussion recently about the role of the moderator in the sort of panel discussions you get at sf conventions. John Scalzi started things off by suggesting ways to deal with the audience members who offer 'not a question, more of a comment'. wild_irises responded, pointing out that panellists could ramble just as much as audience members and that it's dangerous to assume the panellists know more than the audience; nihilistic_kid got in on things by pointing out the damage a too-interested moderator can do (mostly via matociquala).

Lots of good points are made. It's something I've been vaguely thinking about over the past couple of months, because come Worldcon I'm due to moderate four separate program items (and contribute to a fifth; there's nothing like jumping in at the deep end), and because one of the recurring discussions among con-going third row-ers has been about the importance of good moderation. The four items, mind, are actually fairly different, so different strategies are likely to be called for.

There's 'The Alge-Bread-Ist', in which learned third row members will engage in deep philosophical enquiry to determine the true nature of a sandwich. I'm not too worried about this one, because I know all the participants well, and we've talked about the topic before (although I suspect the only reason I'm the moderator is that I'm the one that emailed in the final proposal, so if anyone else wants to take up the reins they'd be more than welcome). Plus, any panel that involves making snacks has to be good.

There's the book group discussion of Margo Lanagan's collection Black Juice. This is going to take some preparation, but it shouldn't be too bad; it's not an audience/panel situation, it should be a relatively small group, and again, I imagine I'll know some of the people there. And talking about books (and getting other people to talk about them) is something I know I can do.

For 'Not The Hugo Awards' I'm a little more daunted, but that's mostly because it's likely to be a somewhat more prominent item than either of the previous two. In terms of moderation, though, the audience doesn't really come into it on this one; the panel has a specific format, one I've seen done several times, been part of twice, and moderated a version of once, so I have a fairly good idea of how to handle it.

Lastly, there's 'The magazines are dead; long live the magazines', which is arguably my only traditional panel in the sense that the posts linked at the top are talking about (and, as it happens, the one I'm most looking forward to; if the people we've asked to be on it agree, it should be good stuff. The title doesn't quite reflect what I envisage it being about but hey, that's always part of the fun). Four people talking about the topic, with me trying to guide the discussion and the likelihood of lots of interested people wanting to add their two cents from the audience. For this, I need to decide on my approach.

At the moment, I'm leaning towards Scalzi's way. I go to panels to hear panellists who (I generously assume) are (a) informed and (b) prepared. If there are other people in the room who are also knowledgeable on the topic, great--they can continue the conversation in the bar afterwards. But with possible rare exceptions, I don't think they should be given equal weight to the panellists, if only because one of the points of panels is to have focus, and you can't have that if twenty-five or more people want to make their views known. Actually, I think Scalzi summed it up pretty well in a second post on the issue:
Another idea floated in comments is that at a panel, the audience and the panel are equals. Well, no. Generally speaking the panelists are actively chosen by the con to be on a panel based on their interest/expertise on the topic; the audience self-selects -- some of them may also be experts on the subject, some of them may have a passing interest, some of them may be there because they think one of the panelists is cute, some of them may be there because the room the panel is taking place in has a clear signal for the hotel wireless and they want to do a blog entry. In general, it's reasonably expected that the panel will take up the bulk of the panel time tossing about ideas like seals with a beach ball, which will on occasion be thrown out into the audience with the hope the audience will bounce the ball back with an interesting new spin. In terms of the discourse of the panel, the panelists are primary participants, and the audience secondary.
I think most of the time, this is true; if you want to explain to me the error of my ways, now's the time. Whether I can steer a conversation in this way in practice is something I guess we're going to find out in August.
Just in case there's any doubt, you're more sort of the 'item organiser' for the Alge-Bread-Ist, which we didn't *quite* think was a panel. You might want to amend the text before it goes into the pocket programme, though, if you're not in charge. Basically, you're the person we're relying on to make the event happen -- which is one of the important roles of the moderator, at least in UK fandom.
which we didn't *quite* think was a panel.

I guess it's not, really. Part panel, part performance art, part something else, probably. [g]

You might want to amend the text before it goes into the pocket programme, though, if you're not in charge

I doubt anyone else will want to take over, somehow ... but in case they do, what's the deadline for changes?
I don't know about moderation but after that metaphor, I've got the urge to throw a beachball at you during Not The Hugos.
I have the urge to bring a beachball to the bread panel and deem that no one is allowed to speak unless they hold the Holy Beachball of Truth.
Sounds like a plan to me.
I am going to put the Holy Beachball of Truth between two slices of bread and eat it.

-- tom
The first panel I was ever on featured David Gerrold, Poul Anderson, Brad Lyau and myself. I was the only one without a PhD or a Hugo. I was also the Moderator. Nothing like jumping in fast waters. There, I sat back, made sure no one talked over anyone else and made a few jokes between. That's the least involved I've ever been as a Moderator (asides from when I've done GoH interviews with Guests).

The Moderator should be a full participant, but one that also keeps things moving. I've done panels on Computer History, SF Lit, Writing, Food, Fan History, Fanzines, Sports, Buffy/Angel/Firefly, and just about everything else you could imagine over the last five years and I'm a fairly good moderator, but I tend to let the audience play a larger part.


Well, it depends on the panel. If I'm up there doing a Panel like 5 Dollars, A Time Machine and a Dead Fish, that's a comedy alternate history panel and good comedy is often formed from one-liners, and after a panelist has dropped one or two of those each, you need to freshen up the room, so more audience participation helps keep the comedy rolling. On more serious topics, it depends how many people there are on the panel. If you have seven people on the panel (which I had at a couple of my WorldCon panels in San Jose) you really don't have time to go to the audience much.

The fact is the "More of a Comment" actually can help shoot a panel forward, though it's hurt me a few times (it sent a perfectly good computer history panel into a Copyright debate) and they give the audience a sense of participation, which is what helps them draw. Not over-doing it is the key.

There are a bunch of ways, but the three most importnat things to remember about moderating, as told to me by David Gerrold, were the following: don't let anyone hog the mic, keep one person talking at a time and try not to say fuck in front of a live microphone.
The Moderator should be a full participant, but one that also keeps things moving.

I agree, but not everyone does. After one WisCon panel this year, I asked the moderator why he'd been so quiet during the discussion. He saw his role more as of a shepherder than an active contributor. (Mind you, he ended up not having to do much after the discussion got rolling.) All these LJ conversations make me want to ask him to talk more about that.
He saw his role more as of a shepherder than an active contributor.

I think that's very much how I'd see my role, as well. Depending on the panel, of course--I'd expect to contribute more to the sandwhich one than to the magazines one, for instance.
I think 'it depends on the panel' would be my answer. In some panels you might want audience participation, in others you might want them to shut up. Some moderators might feel that they should be involved in the discussion, others might feel that they have little to contribute and they should just let the other panelists get on with it. Saying that either of these approaches is 'wrong' would be unfair.

I do note, however, that sf audiences sometimes assume they have a right to interrupt whatever is going on in front of them - this, I feel, should always be handled with firmness.
Like swisstone says, I think it really does depend on the panel. And it depends on the size of the audience too.

In general though, I think the thing to be avoided is having anyone monopolise the discussion, because if one person is going for too long then the panel's momentum founders and people will get bored. Obviously, if the person monopolising the discussion is talking about something that's peripheral or irrelevant to the topic in hand then that will make things even worse. I suspect that audience members offering 'Not a question; more of a comment' are the ones that are most likely to monopolise the discussion with an irrelevant monologue, but panelists can do it sometimes too. The moderators job, in my opinion, is to make sure first that the people on the panel get some time to speak, then, if it's approproate, to make sure that audience members who want to can get a chance to join in, but ultimately to ensure that no one, panelists and audience members alike, gets to go on for too long. And to steer the discussion back on topic if it looks like it's in danger of veering off.

Having said that that's what I think a moderator should do, I'm painfully aware that it can be an incredibly difficult task and I know that for the most part it's not one I'd be up to. Which is why I asked not to be made a moderator on panels. ;)
I realise i'm a good way behind the power curve here, but you might have some interest in a A field guide to biomedical meeting creatures, or part I of it, anyway (courtesy of Nodalpoint (http://www.nodalpoint.org/)).

-- tom

PS Think that might be the first time i've followed a link with 'courtesy of $AGGREGATOR'. I feel ... soiled.
No idea why that's gone bold.

-- tom
</strong>It's nothing in your HTML that I can see; I think lj has started automatically de-HTML-ifying URLs from anonymous commenters.