- If you get to choose the panelists, look for contrasts. Assembling five straight, middle-aged white guys who generally agree with each other can produce a dull panel. Mixing panelists of different races, genders, orientations, ages, viewpoints, and so on can make things interesting, especially if they’re willing to disagree with each other in public.
- Prepare for the event. To quote veteran moderator Tony Panaccio, “Have some sort of a plan. I always liked to have a little chat with each panelist ahead of time to get their thoughts on the topic of the panel. That way, you can help get the top comments from each panelist even if [you’re] just winging it.”
- By the way: Don’t wing it. Prepare questions ahead of time. You don’t have to use all of them, but keeping them at hand will keep you from fumfering around in search of things to ask.
- Bring a pen and note pad to jot down questions about things that the panelists say.
- Ask the convention organizers for markers, a freestanding easel, and a large (e.g., 27″ x 34″) sketch pad. If a panelist mentions something visual, ask him or her to sketch it on the pad. This action wakes up audience members and holds their attention.
- Get rid of tables if you can. The typical convention panel is a line of panelists behind a table, sometimes up on a dais. This format separates the panelists from the audience. Removing it brings the audience and the panelists closer, literally and otherwise, making the venue feel more personal — less like a classroom and more like a family living room — and encourages conversation between audience and panelists.
- For the same reason, ask audience members at the room’s back and sides to come closer to front and center. Audience members tend to scatter throughout the room, which dissipates their energy and interest. Bringing them closer nudges them to pay more attention to the panel.
- Don’t ask the panelists yes-or-no questions. Ask how-and-why questions. You’ll get more interesting answers.
- On any panel, some panelists will talk more than others. Try to draw out the ones who don’t talk so much. Often, they have good things to say.
- Watch the panelists. If they do anything interesting, ask about it. For instance: “Joanne, when I mentioned Stan Lee, you grimaced. Do you have a Stan Lee story?”
- Watch the time, too. The convention may not warn you that you’ve got only a few minutes left, and you could find yourself having to cut off an interesting anecdote because you didn’t realize that the panel’s gone on too long.