Sunday, May 19, 2019

Death By Panellist

Zoë Sharp

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be taking part in the eleventh annual CrimeFest convention in Bristol, UK, along with my fellow MurderIsEverywhere blogmates, Cara BlackCaro RamsayJeffrey Siger, and Stan Trollip (Michael Stanley).

Much enjoyment was had by all.

The reason for the title of my blog is partly as a response to the (very funny and sadly accurate) blog posted by Caro Ramsay on May 3, entitled Death By Panel. In it, Caro detailed some of the less enjoyable experiences she’s had on panels at crime writing festivals and conferences, mainly due to poor performance on the part of the moderator.

And yes, as wonderful as most moderators are, I’ve been there and experienced some of that myself. I recall one who demonstrated that they’d never done more than briefly skim my bio by announcing that I wrote a series about a bodyguard called Charles Fox…

More recently, a futuristic short story I’d intended to be about the nature of constant surveillance and how easily what you see—or think you see—can be manipulated or misinterpreted, was summed up by my moderator as being “set in a traffic jam”. Ah well.

(Not quite up to par with Caro’s report of “This is Caro Ramsay. I read her book but it was not to my taste,” but still somewhat disheartening.)

Most conventions—and CrimeFest is no exception—provide a Moderator’s Manifesto for the enlightenment of those undertaking the task for the first time. Advice therein includes:

‘Do your homework. Even if you haven’t read their books, you will need to spend some time on their websites, reading reviews, reading sample chapters and otherwise getting to know their work so you can ask intelligent questions.’

‘Prepare a list of scintillating questions (hint: “Where do you get your ideas?” without more is not scintillating. Nor is asking the same questions of each panellist four times in a row.)’

‘Contact your panellists beforehand and let them know what to expect from you, and what you expect from them (but it’s usually best not to tell them what your specific questions will be beforehand because too much panellist preparation spoils spontaneity.)’

It suggests that moderators discourage panellists from standing their books up on the table in front of them, as this hides the author’s face from the crowd, and often the covers are too small to be seen clearly by those at the back of the room anyway. And I would certainly try to dissuade panellists from holding the book up next to their face in a cheesy way while speaking or being introduced. (Yes, I’ve had that happen numerous times.)

On the subject of introductions, the Manifesto suggests the moderator does not do them, but when a panel length is 50 minutes rather than an hour, I’m afraid I do tend to. That way, I know I can control the time it will take.

Beforehand, I always contact my panellists and ask them for BRIEF bios—preferably the one they were asked to send to the event organiser for the programme book. I also ask for what they consider their best review quote, as I think it always looks much better if they don’t have to quote this themselves. And I ask for an ebook version of the title they wish to promote as well as an author pic so I can make up a social media poster.

Depending on the topic, I invite suggestions for things we can discuss, and usually if there’s anything they would rather I didn’t bring up. Creating an interesting discussion is the aim, not handcuffing them to a chair and shining bright lights in their eyes.

When we meet in the Green Room beforehand, I check pronunciation of difficult names, and ask if anyone objects to being asked the first question. Some authors get very nervous on panels and need longer to settle than others.

I remind the authors to speak into the microphone and to keep looking at the audience as they do so, as otherwise they will swing away from the mic and the people at the back of the room will get fed up with not being able to hear more than disconnected snatches of conversation.

I also remind them that we have just 50 minutes for our panel. By the time I have introduced them, which for four authors will probably take about 6 mins, and then opened up to audience questions for the last 10-12 mins, this leaves a little over half an hour. During this time, I have one book-specific question for each author, plus a number of more general questions linked to the topic. Each author will have around 8 mins talking time in total. Although usually down as a Participating Moderator, I try not to participate too much apart from light comic relief.

So, I always plead with them to KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET.

Sometimes this works more effectively than others.

I have had panellists who decide to immediately start a discussion with the audience rather than waiting for the Q&A at the end. This can often lead to an audience member who wants to show their superior command of the subject by making a long and involved statement, turned into a question only by tacking the words, “don’t you agree?” onto the end of it.

I have had panellists who insist on knowing in advance what questions I’ll be asking, then rush through answering all of them at the first opportunity they get, thus forcing me to improvise for the remainder of the panel.

I’ve seen panellists who stare out of the window looking thoroughly bored all the time anyone else is speaking.

I’ve had authors who name and shame other authors for the accuracy of their work. This never ends well. By all means say, “I read one thriller where x, y, and z happened,” but for Pete’s sake don’t name the writer and/or the book. We all make the occasional blooper and getting personal is just likely to end up with that author’s fans digging for your mistakes.

I usually get an inkling on the run-up to the event who is going to be difficult. Although I ask for a brief author bio, in the past I’ve been sent pages and pages of info with the airy instruction to just ‘use whatever you like’. Or, better yet, being told ‘oh, it’s all on my website’ and expecting you to hunt for it. Bios sent written in first person have to be fiddled with before they can be used.

It really helps if attached documents have the author’s name and the book title or subject as the file name. Same with jpeg images. Huge hi-res images (ie, more than 72dpi) are not much good for online use and just take up memory space.

OK, I think I’m going to stop there, before I get myself into any more trouble. And I don’t mean to whinge. Being invited to moderate a panel is an honour and a privilege, and the majority of panellists are a delight to deal with and chat to. Which makes the ones who aren’t, really stick in the memory…

This week’s Word of the Week is lexiphanicism meaning to use pretentious words or language, named after a character in the works of Lucian of Samosata, who wrote in Ancient Greek.

June 7
Meet the Author—Thornton Library, Victoria Road East, Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire FY5 3SZ
Friday, June 07, 10:30-11:30


  1. How true! As a moderator, the feedback I like the most is when an audience member comes up later and wishes the panel had been longer.

    1. Absolutely, Stan. It's akin to being told by a reader that you cost them a night's sleep because they couldn't put down your book. (I knew impregnating the cover with superglue would come into its own...)

  2. What I love about panels...especially moderating that they offer you the chance to meet interesting people and make some lifelong friends. Though there is the downside risk of becoming fodder for blogger humorists.

    1. This was not a piece about moderators as much as it was a piece about panellists, Jeff. And I certainly didn't have you in mind, m'dear!

  3. Zoe, I so look forward to being there next year when we will all have lots of time with you on the dais. I have a silver toast rack. Shall I have it fashioned into a tiara for you?

    1. lol, I look forward to that, too, Annamaria. I love the idea of the toast rack tiara, but I wouldn't do that to something made of silver. (Actually, thinking about it, I'd be more likely to fashion it into an improvised weapon of some kind...)

  4. A few times I've been warned about a panellist, that they can bit tricksy, and then they have been lovely. One wonders if the previous moderators had just not prepared properly.