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Con Survival Series: How to Run a Panel

March 30, 2009

So do you want to go to a convention and get in for free? Do you have a topic you are an expert on? Do you have something you want the rest of the anime community to know about? Do you constantly get asked the same questions again and again in real life and on the Internet? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you might be perfect to run a panel. It is great because you almost always get in for free and you get a little soapbox to spread youe addition to the anime gospel. The real question is why doesn’t everyone do it? Because is it is a lot of work. If you do it right, even a simple panel is enough work equal to the price of admission. So let’s get down to business. How do I do a super special awesome chocolaty fudge-coated panel that will get me invited back again and again?

You’re right, everyone’s first inclination for running a panel is that you can get in for free. Though you have to check that before you get excited, many smaller cons only give you a discount on your ticket or none at all. Doing a panel because you want to and are actually going to put in the effort necessary without getting paid, that is when you separate the men from the boys. It is really important to think hard about doing a panel before signing up, you are placing yourself as a event of the convention. It is a responsibility.

Clearly the first thing to decide is what you want to talk about. There are a wide variety of topics you could do a panel or workshop about. Next is deciding who to do your panel with. If you are really confident, you can go it solo. However, the on stage banter between two or more people can keep the panel fresh and lively. If you are super cautious, you can check what panels the convention ran last year. Typically if the same person is doing the same panel year after year your are much less likely to get accepted as a panelist on the subject. Now it is time to write your proposal. When you submit your panel idea you want to sell it hard. First list all the accolades that would sell your panelists. If any panelists have professional, scholastic, or amateur experience mention it in the proposal. For example, studying for a literature or animation degree, heading an anime club or other fan activities, or a job related to your topic are all good things to put down. Also if you have ever run any other panels mention that, too. You want to present yourself as overqualified. You want to sell the person reviewing your proposal that you know what you are talking about. Don’t just write a two line description if you can avoid it.

Panels are just more fun when you are doing them together. Of course, it throws in a set of problems like making sure everyone shows up and puts in the needed effort. Nothing is more frustrating than having one member totally unprepared. Once your panel is accepted there may be a little bit of paperwork involved depending on the convention. Typically there is some sort of release form that each member has to sign and turn in prior to the panel. Now it is time to start working on the actual panel. Do not leave this till the last minute! Start work on your panel atleast a month before the convention.

If you are already quite knowledgeable about your panel subject then it is a simple matter of organizing your thoughts. Otherwise you are going to have to sit down and do some research. Once you have decided on the subject make a quick outline. Decide all the things you want to talk about in a big brain-storming session. Then take all those ideas and sort them into categories. Once that is done, write down what highlights you want to touch upon in each category. You don’t have to write everything out like it was an essay, just lay down talking points so you always know the flow of the panel.

Now when planning out the panel it is essential to think about your time frame. Some subjects will be too grand to cover in a mere hour and some things too narrow. So after picking your subject you should break it into segments. Here is a breakdown for our Anime Recruitment panel as an example:

  • Intro to us/panel – 5 mins
  • Do’s and Don’ts – 10 mins
  • Recommendations – 30 mins
  • Q and A – 15 mins.
    total: 60 mins.

You actually need to run through the panel to make sure your breakdown is realistic, too. It is wise to set aside some time for questions at the end, however if it is your first time running a panel leave only about 5 or 10 minutes. Otherwise you may have dead space in your panel. My advice is to also ask your audience to hold all questions till the end because you need to make sure to get through all your subject matter. I find this to be the biggest folly at panels. And it is better to have more questions than you can answer that flow into the hall. Also in that time be packing up your stuff to make way for the next panelist.

The old joke is someone asks, “Pardon me sir, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the other man replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” The best panels have probably been rehearsed at least three times before they were ever given. This is even more true for any workshops, demonstrations, game shows, and scripted events. Even if you have it all written down in front of you, it will flow off the tongue more naturally if you practice before hand. Rounding people up to watch you practice is even better. It gives you a good opportunity to make sure you are making eye contact with the audience and you can gauge their reactions. Ideally you would have one person in the audience that has no idea what your panel is about and one person who is knowledgeable about it then get their thoughts at the end. Also an audience can shoot you some questions so you have some idea ahead of time what you might be asked at the actual panel.

While it isn’t necessary, we highly recommend the use of visuals like a PowerPoint presentation. It gives some pop to your panel, makes sure the audience isn’t only looking at you, and makes you look slightly more professional. This can easily keep the audience from getting bored and it makes your job that much easier in trying to describe things. You can also create hand-outs for the audience to keep with them after your panel. For example, if you are talking about many different shows the hand-out could list them, who released it, and how long it is. You can also use that space to promote your blog or website. Finally, a good way to draw attention to your panel is to give things away. Does that sound sleazy? Who cares! It works. In the convention guide be sure to mention a giveaway in your panel description. Then just gather up a few DVDs, books, etc. you aren’t too attached to and presto! Instant audience!

Now that everything is done it’s time to cover your behind. You want to throw any presentations, videos, handouts, and notes on at least two separate back up sources. They can be either laptops, CDs, DVDs, portable hard drives, or written copies of all the panel information. That means no matter what happens you should be able to do the panel. A girl who was giving several panels had her laptop die right at the beginning of the Providence Anime Convention. Her presentation contained rather scholarly panels with a great deal of information, pictures, and charts on her PowerPoint slides. Since she had a backup CD and a portable HD she merely borrowed a laptop from someone in the audience or staff and ran her panels without a misstep. Ideally, everyone on the panel should bring along a backup copy of all the panel materials. No matter who drops out the remaining members can still do the panel without them.

Now comes the moment of truth, you have to get up there and do a panel. Our first panel, I was slightly nervous but the convention was small so it wasn’t too terrible. My second experience was much more nerve racking! Otakon was a whole different ball park with a lot more people. Plus, you had to get up on this stage area! Something about being elevated made it far worse. Don’t panic, if you are nervous when you get up there tell the audience so. Start talking with them to loosen yourself up. In any case, I’m just pointing out that I get terribly nervous but make it through. And then you feel a nice exhilaration after it is all over! But when it is all over, how do you know if it went well? People will clap, hopefully, and some will probably talk to you after the panel. These are good signs. Con staff in the room are also good people to ask because they are typically keeping an eye on the audience. And finally check out the forums and ask around. Remember, all panels have the potential to be good it just takes some foresight to make it memorable! Good luck!

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6 comments

  1. good tips!

    doing your panel at an obscure convention also helps to practice for the big deal con you were going to go to anyways!


  2. I agree that pimping yourself out for a panel application is good, but I think that detailing every part of your panel content in the long run promotes yourself better, because it shows that you know what you’re going to talk about.

    In terms of the Q/A session, I try to get the idea across for people to ask questions that have a general focus and can educate the rest of the room, while keeping very specific or personal questions until after the panel, when the speaker can approach me after we’ve left the panel room. Moderation and, as you already said, preparation are the keys to good panels.

    Overall, great write up. I really would love to see more panel-specific posts by anime bloggers, because panels are a huge part of cons but usually don’t get a lot of critique online (unless they’re industry panels). Also, there are websites with a lot of info about conventions like http://www.animecons.com, but they don’t record panels or publish the panel descriptions from the con guides.


  3. I’ve fallen into being a panelist because friends who run events have needed help, and now I realize I kinda like it. I haven’t actually applied to run a panel cause I haven’t had to, but I’ll keep this stuff in mind when I do.


  4. @ omo
    Yeah you are going to be less nervous in front of a crowd of 10 than in front of a crowd of 200 especially if it is your first panel ever.

    @Alex
    Oh no doubt. The more that detail you give about your panel the more you show you have the potential to do a good job.

    I really would like to hear more about good panels becuase I mostly go to conventions for panels. A more ambitious person than I would make some sort of site for that.

    @Sub
    Being a panelist is sort of like being a beta tester for games. Once you have done it a few times people are usually 100% more likely to pick you. It’s never a guarantee but it gives you much better chances with competition for panel positions like Otakon. But still I think doing panels if done right are a great contribution to fandom in general. Having attended one of your panels you make a good contribution to fandom.


  5. [...] How to Run a Panel [...]


  6. Sure, it’s years’ old. I might just need the advice though^^



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