The Platonic Ideal Panel Moderator

People who attend panels (and those who are on them) know that one thing that can make or break a panel is the moderator. At the Gen Con Writer's Symposium, it is vital to us that our audiences receive the best programming possible, and to that end, we try to be sure our moderators are experienced and knowledgable, not only in the topics they are presenting, but how to moderate the panelists. We're are extremely lucky to have had such a wonderful crew of moderators over the years, and attribute this as a big part of the Symposium's success. Susan J. Morris has been a member of the Writer's Symposium for several years and has kindly offered to share some of her knowledge with us about some of her best practices as a panel moderator. Welcome, Susan!

When I first started to moderate, I asked moderators, authors, and audience members for their favorite panels, and what made them great, in order to kind of create a Platonic Ideal Panel Moderator. As you can imagine, everyone had lots to say about this. In the end, I boiled it down to this:

The Platonic Ideal Panel Moderator is an impartial leader and referee in the discussion who does his or her best to make sure the topic is fully explored, the conversation is dynamic, the panelists look brilliant, and the audience gets what they need.

Obviously, there’s a lot of realness that gets in the way of platonic idealness. But from what I can tell, these are a few of the rungs on the ladder to that moderator in the sky.

  1. Preparation
    This is kind of like planning for a vacation, isn’t it? Everyone has their own time-tested method, and doing it someone else’s way is stressful and weird. But! That being said, here’s my method, and why I’ve found it successful.
    1. The Theory
      Part of the reason everyone trusts the moderator to lead the conversation is because they trust you’ve thought about it more than they have, and will fully explore the space. Just by having questions on paper, you gain trust and respect from your panelists. It shows you care, that you take their performance seriously, and that you are ready.
    2. Write Too Many Questions
      Ahead of time, obviously. I try for 25 questions per topic. With only roughly half an hour per panel for moderated questions, I usually get through maybe 5. But here’s why I write more:
      1. Sometimes, the panelists are laconic.
      2. A large number of diverse questions ensures that no matter what tiny, peculiar area of the topic secretly excites your panelists YOU WILL FIND IT, and the conversation will be amazing.
      3. Sometimes one panelist accidentally answers like 15 of your questions.
      4. Writing a lot of questions means you wrote out all the bad ones, and got to delete them already.
      5. Writing a lot of questions means you almost always have a way to get things back on track when the panelists are noodling.
    3. Know the Space
      1. Why Write Questions? Honestly, you don’t HAVE to write questions ahead of time. But I think it’s super helpful to do something to explore the space ahead of time, and to make sure you remember it before the panel. Basically, doing a “first draft” of the panel, so that what you present to the audience is a final draft—trying to eliminate the boring and slow bits and keep to the greatest hits.
      2. Have a Conversation. I often have conversations about the topics with my writing group so I can figure out what the most interesting parts of a topic are, and where the dead space in a topic is. It’s particularly helpful if I’m stuck on a topic—thinking about it too narrowly, or bored by the questions I can think up. But it’s also another way one can get to know the space.
      3. Research. Nothing too heavy, but I like to look up the topic online to see what other people are saying about it, what questions people have about it, and what’s changed in the last few years. I also do quick research on the panelists, seeing what they’ve written, to see if there are any areas of the topic they’d likely be interested in (especially for topics like Writing the Other, which has a huge number of places it could go.) But also: it’s good to have a heads up about potential hot-button issues before one dives right in.
    4. Be Ready to Throw It All Out
      Before the panel, I look over my questions, circle my favorites, cross out the ones I can’t believe I wrote down, and sometimes write a few new ones. And then, sometimes, on the panel, I find that the panelists want to take the panel in an entirely different direction than I’d expected!

      Obviously, sticking to the questions robotically at that point isn’t good form. But fortunately, the act of preparing questions means you know the problem space backward and forward. So, like any GM who has read the adventure and taken notes, only for the players to veer off the map, it’s time to improvise.

      The difference for me between improvising after having prepared versus improvising without having prepared, is that I know I can improvise when I’ve prepared—I know I can sometimes improvise when I haven’t prepared, and that sometimes, I can’t.
  2. Setting Expectations.
    Setting expectations is awesome. It means everyone is on the same page as to what you and they should be doing, so when you inevitably have to shut down the hour-long question asker, or tell the brilliant but wordy author to give another author a turn, you are the agent of righteousness. Besides, moderation is inherently a power dynamic, and everyone hates mushy power dynamics. Setting it lets them know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them, which makes everyone feel more comfortable.
    1. Panelists.
      The first way I set expectations is by introducing myself to the panelists semi-formally, with handshake and name, explaining I’ll be their moderator, and asking if they prefer round-robin or conversational style. I’ll also often ask if there’s any area in particular they’d like to cover or avoid.

      Most panelists super don’t care about these particulars. But asking sets the expectation that there will be structure, that you will control the flow of conversation, and that you are there to support them and make them look good. But it also asks implicitly that they defer to your judgment in these things. I’ve found it makes a huge difference in panelist-moderator relations and helps avoid power struggles mid-panel.
    2. Audience.
      Not essential, but really helpful—and something I’ve observed a lot of other moderators doing, as well. I often arrive a bit early and chat with the line or the first few rows of audience. I ask if they’re enjoying the symposium, whether they’re attending as readers or writers, and what they’re hoping to get out of the panel. This allows me to do some last-minute honing of my questions to make sure the audience gets what they came for, and also sets audience expectations: the moderator cares that they get what they came for.
    3. Introduction to the Panel
      I got this part (and format) from the amazing and talented Elizabeth Vaughn, who held my trembly, sweaty hand my first year of moderating, and gave me all kinds of advice which became the backbone of all this opinionstuff. But the thing I think is so brilliant about Ms. Vaughn’s approach is that it’s basically laying out the law of the land, which, it turns out, really helps people adhere to it. Usually, this means saying something along the lines of:
      1. Welcome to [Panel Name]. The panel description for this panel is: [panel description.]
      2. I’m [Moderator’s name], I will be your moderator.
      3. Thank you for coming!
      4. Just a few rules before we get started:
        1. Number one, please set your phones to silent.
        2. Two, we’ll have about 15 minutes at the end for questions, so please hold your hands until then.
        3. And three, please keep all said questions in the form of a question.
      5. Depending on who is on the panel, I also tell audience members to please clear the room at the end of the panel, and to catch the authors after the panel for things such as signings, compliments, and the like.
      6. Then I ask authors to briefly introduce themselves and what they do. Ideally this takes 5 minutes. It can take up to 10, but given that sessions are 50 minutes, with 15 minutes for questions, and therefore 35 minutes for the panel and introductions, I feel like the balance is out of whack when introductions take us to 15.
  3. Leading from Behind (ie: Asking Questions Instead of Offering Opinions)
    This is super controversial. I mean, moderators are often articulate, intelligent, thoughtful subject matter experts—sometimes with more articulate, intelligent, and thoughtful things to say about a topic than the panel members. After all, the moderator had to think about it beforehand, and sometimes authors are hungover. But when I’ve asked authors and audience members what they prefer, most of them said they prefer moderators who stick to just moderating. Here’s why I think that is:
    1. What Happens When the Moderator Offers Opinions
      At the beginning of the panel, the moderator sets up a power dynamic. In doing so, they implicitly promise that they will use the power with which they are entrusted not for self-interest, but to be an impartial leader and referee, as well as to do their best to make sure the topic is fully explored, and that no one panelist dominates.

      Which means even if a panelist is very fancy, when the moderator speaks, panelists and audience members are quiet and listen. And if someone isn’t quiet and doesn’t listen, the whole room gets mad at them. They do this because they trust that the moderator is doing it in the service of everyone, not out of self-interest or self-promotion.

      If the moderator then uses that deference and power to intervene in the conversation to offer their own opinions, then they are, from the panelists’ and audience’s perspective, no longer acting in an impartial way or in the interest of all, but out of self-interest.

      This means the panelists are essentially offering undue deference to a fellow panel member who they trusted to be impartial, who they might think is wrong, and who they might think is taking advantage of the power dynamic they set up to give their opinions unfair time and weight—even if that was not the intent of the moderator.

      And this is practically never the intent of the moderator. All the same, in the eyes of the panelists and audience, it can compromise their role as impartial leader. This, in turn, can set up the moderator for power struggles with the panelists in front of the audience, which is rarely superhappyfuntimes.
    2. Asking Questions Instead of Offering Opinions
      Of course, every moderator has been in the position where their lovely and intelligent (but usually not as prepared as the moderator) panelists are simply skipping large swathes of topic, or are giving answers that aren’t helpful to an audience that wants help with the how-to.

      But I think the answer lies in the moderator’s toolset already. The same way many great teachers don’t offer their opinions, they ask the right questions to get their students to explore the space themselves, I think asking the right questions can help get your panelists back on track.

      For example, on a panel one time, I asked the panelists how you get readers invested in the situation at hand, and one panelist answered “characters” on one word, and all the other panelists were like: “yup.” I could see it wasn’t enough for the audience; I needed them to dive in more. So I replied: “Like what, have some?” And it made the panelists laugh, make witty jokes of their own, and then explore the answer for the audience thoroughly, without my expressing my opinions, trying to steer the conversation directly, or anything like that. The panelists looked good! The audience was happy! And together that’s all, really, you can ever ask for.

      Obviously, that’s easier said than done. When possible, I’ve found humor works incredibly well. You can also ask questions that make explicit the implicit assumptions in their statements. But honestly, this should be a roundtable, because I think there are probably a ton of ways to do this that I haven’t even thought of, and which I’d love to have in my back pocket for when I’ve had one too many coffees and way too little sleep.
    3. Exceptions
      Obviously there are exceptions! There are exceptions to every rule. Sometimes, the only way you can move things forward is by stating your opinion. Sometimes, the stuff being said is hurtful, and you need to head off a disaster. But most of the time, I’ve found I can get away with just questions.

In the end, I guess I see the Platonic Ideal Moderator as kind of like an editor—someone who is essentially invisible, but who works to make sure their authors both look brilliant and feel good about their work, while also ensuring the audience leaves happy. Someone who asks the right questions. And someone who tries to make A Book (or A Panel) not the book they would have written themselves, but the best A Book it can be.

But that’s just how I do things! If you do it differently, that’s awesome. If you agree with me: well done! You obviously have excellent opinions. And if this write-up helped you: yay! That was the intent. I look forward to seeing you all at Gen Con!


Susan J. Morris is a fantasy editor and author, best known for her work editing Forgotten Realms novels, designing D&D for kids, and her work in the Practical Guide series. She has edited Forgotten Realms novels for twelve years now (half those years in house, the other half freelance), and she was delighted to be a 2012 Industry Insider Guest of Honor at Gen Con. In addition to editing, she designed D&D for kids, wrote a few books (including A Practical Guide to Wizardry and A Practical Guide to Dragon Magic), and wrote a critically acclaimed writing advice column for Amazon's Omnivoracious blog called "Writers Don't Cry." When not reading, editing, or writing, Susan enjoys drinking ungodly amounts of coffee, dancing, playing video games, and working on her German language skills. She lives in rainy Seattle with her wonderful husband in a beautiful, strange house filled with plants. She has one cat (Nox), but her favorite animal has always been the jellyfish, and she holds a special fondness for all the ugliest creatures of the sea, like sea cucumbers.