I was talking to someone who is planning on doing programming for a convention, because I think everyone, or nearly everyone, who is on panels has opinions about how they should be done–certainly everyone who has helped with programming, which I have. And I wanted to say this in no uncertain terms: if you do not have a moderator, you do not have a panel.
I don’t care if you choose to have a participating moderator or a non-participating moderator. That’s up to you, your con, your topic, whatever. Do that as you will. Use your own judgment. But I can count on one hand the number of panels I have ever seen that would have done all right with completely freeform participation from the panelists and in the panelists’ interactions with the audience. I have seen several where the participants said they’d do fine that way. And generally having someone moderate either turned out to be the best decision or would have turned out to be the best decision; and quite often which person mattered a great deal.
Let me say that again: which moderator matters a great deal.
I know that it’s really hard to know who will be a good moderator if you’re doing programming for a large convention and you don’t know all the personalities of your panelists. You don’t necessarily know who will be shy, who will be balky, who will tend to ramble and then stop completely, who will talk over other panelists, who will talk over audience members, who will talk over audience members who absolutely need to be talked over…who will get a good balance of calling on rambly but interesting pros in the audience with calling on concise question-askers…moderating is hard, and moderating each specific panel is different. I know it’s hard to know. I’m sorry.
But you need a moderator. And you need to know more than five minutes in advance who is moderating, because panel prep is a thing for everybody, but it’s really, really, truly a thing for the moderator. The questions that keep a panel from being shallow and surface-driven can arise naturally and organically–but they don’t always. Sometimes the moderator brings them up. Sometimes the moderator brings them up in such a natural way that it looks like they’re natural and organic. The pitfalls that will make a panel truly dreadful: a prepared moderator can sometimes start to see them coming and steer frantically away.
And lately (at multiple conventions! I am not calling out any one convention!) I have seen a lot of “who wants to be the moderator?” as a means of choosing the moderator, and I’m sorry, but that is not enough. Quite a few people want to be the moderator who should not be the moderator. It is not quite to the level of “anyone who wants the job shouldn’t have it,” but…there are at least a great many obviously experienced people who have not been practicing using that experience to boost insightful voices with less experience. This is one of the cases where “I’ve done this ten million times and am comfortable with it” is maybe not always the thing to reinforce. Sometimes! Sometimes experience combines with awareness to give you a moderator who will help bring out new ideas, and that’s great. And other times you get someone who makes the panel their own personal pulpit, or who has vast experience with moderating badly, or any of a number of other problems. So: “I’m comfortable doing it” doesn’t always map to doing a good job.
Which may mean that I, personally, should not always be the moderator. I will try to do a good job when I moderate, but guess what? I will be the right moderator for some panels. And I will be the wrong moderator for some panels. I think that when someone comes in saying, you need a moderator to do these things, it can get read with an implication of like me, me, I would do this perfectly, I am the right choice, me. I want to explicitly say: nope. Sometimes it’s absolutely me, sometimes it’s absolutely not, and sometimes I’m the least of evils for the panelists you have. Me, personally.
But the worst panel horror stories invariably have someone asking, “And what did the moderator do?” And the answers are either: “Nothing!” or, “That was the moderator.” So: convention programming staff. Please, please, please. I know it’s a difficult question, I know you will not be able to get it perfect, and I don’t blame you when you try and it goes wrong. But I do blame you when there isn’t a moderator assigned. Please at least try. Think about the moderator as a careful part of how you do panels.