Jack Up The Moderation

The 'Urban Noir' panel at Bouchercon 2017 last month in Toronto.

Such a calm word—moderator.

Merriam Webster: “Someone who leads a discussion in a group and tells each person when to speak: someone who moderates a meeting or discussion.”

I’ve been going to book conferences for years and for some reason this year I sat in on a few panels led by some truly awful moderators.

I’ve also seen some knock-outs.

So I’m offering the following suggestions and recommendations.

I mean, holy cow people! If you get asked to moderate a panel at Bouchercon (the annual conference for mystery writers and mystery readers) it’s very possible that several hundred people will be watching. Listening. It’s their chance to meet new writers, get to know them. As moderator, it's your job to give them a showcase moment.


1. Read your panelists’ latest books. Really read them. Don’t skim. Get to know their themes and characters. Yes, this takes time. But the moderator gig is a good one—for you, too. Don’t give it short shrift.

2. Study up on your panelists’ bios. Do a bit of research and dig out a fun fact or two about their lives—it might come in handy.

3. Speaking of bios, don’t use up a quarter of the panel time reading introductions. The bios are in all the programs. A couple sentences will do. Thirty seconds! Think top line of Wikipedia. Sample: “Stephen King writes horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television series, and comic books. King has published 54 novels and six non-fiction books. He has written around 200 short stories. His bookshelf is crammed with major awards.”

4. Huddle with your panelists before the show. A huddle on email is fine, sure. Tell them how you’re going to run things. Send them a few sample questions to give them an idea of the issues you want to cover. Help them look good. The more they can prepare, the better their chances of leaving a good impression (and not stumbling around for an answer).

A Left Coast Crime panel (2016) moderated by William Kent Krueger (center). Also, left to right: Lou Berney, Lisa Brackmann, Chris Holm, James W. Ziskin.

5. Write meaningful questions that show a bit of insight and analysis. Look for genuine comparisons among your panelists’ works. And also how the works diverge—setting, style, narrative voice, level of morality, anything.

6. Write those questions down and then make them tight and clean. The more the questions are precisely about the writers on your panel, the better. Stock questions lead to stock answers. Stock answers are snoozeville. Develop questions designed to provoke debate or, at least, solid discussion. Do not show up and ramble your way into a question.

7. Speak up. At Bouchercon this year in Toronto, one moderator spoke as if she was in a back booth in a dark restaurant whispering like a nervous informant to the FBI. If she smiled more than the Mona Lisa, I missed it. If you’re not up for showing a bit of enthusiasm, don’t take the gig.

8. Listen to the answers! You may have a list of questions, but react to what’s being said. Engage. It’s a dialogue. You’re sparking conversation. On the other hand, cut off the spotlight hogs. (You can warn your team about your expectations on the issue of rambling on during the pre-panel huddle.) You are in charge so … take charge. And if other panelists are too brisk with their comments, probe deeper. Press for more detail.

9. Pretend it’s the only panel that matters. Your panel is NOT just another panel. This is YOUR panel. It’s the only one as far as you’re concerned. The writers you’re leading? If they are on one panel during the whole conference, then this is their moment in the spotlight—even if it’s 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. It’s your job to make that light bright, entertaining, meaningful, and fun.

10. Leave time for audience questions. If you’re running a 50-minute panel, leave at least five or ten minutes for the audience. If there are none, have a few more questions ready to go.

11. Leave yourself out of it as much as possible. That includes criticizing something that’s been said. Even if your impromptu quip is meant to be funny, it’s a really bad idea to accidentally put one of your panelists down in front of a crowd. This ain’t about you. Wait your turn to be a panelist and hope for a good moderator. A really good one. Like you.

Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens is 2016 RMFW Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series–Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (2015). Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award; Trapline won. Trapline also won the 2015 award in genre fiction from the Colorado Authors League. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire “irresistible.” More about Mark on his website.

6 thoughts on “Jack Up The Moderation

  1. I hear you on this one, Mark. I’ve moderated panels and listened to panels. Pet peeve is when a moderator inserts himself/herself into the panel. Unless conference policy gives permission, every set of instructions says “Keep Out!”

    As for intros, I keep mine even shorter, since, as you say, that information is all in the program and one assumes attendees can read. I ask each of my panelists for a fun “non-writing” fact about themselves and simply tell the audience, “You have before you a champion ballroom dancer, someone who speaks five languages, someone who has a collection of skulls on the mantle…” but it’s up to the panelists to out themselves during the panel.

    We start planning weeks before via email. I have each panelist send me 3 questions they’d like me to ask them so they get their moments to let the audience know what they think is important. I also have a pool of questions that they’re aware of because I don’t like blindsiding people.

    One last thing that’s another pet peeve of mine is the moderator who asks a question of Panelist 1, and then repeats it for 2, 3, and 4. Poor number 4 (and often 2 and 3) say “I have nothing to add.” Or they repeat the same information. It’s fine to let them have a discussion rather than a simple Q&A, too. Let thing build, let them talk to each other.

    As you said, it should be fun!

  2. Another Terry here. I also think it is up to panelists to be good participants. I try to read at least one book from each of my fellow panelists. And I look for moments when I can get into conversation rather than just dutifully answering questions. I still remember my very first panel as an author. The moderator was of the “ask the same question of each panelist. Repeat.” school of moderating. Halfway through the panelists hi-jacked the process because we knew it was turning into a bore-fest.

    I was lucky at Bouchercon to be on a panel with a fantastic moderator. When I said in reply to something one of the other panelists said, “I disagree,” our moderator gleefully said, “Goodie! That’s what I want.” And we were off.

    You can always tell when panelists or moderators are just phoning in their participation. It wastes time for everyone.

  3. Good advice, Mark. The worst panels I’ve seen are those where the moderator dominates the discussion. I was a panelist once where that happened, and none of us had the courage to interrupt this lady and refocus the conversation.

    In 2013 I had the wonderful opportunity to moderate a great panel at Left Coast Crime and found I like the job a lot. I was able to use a podium instead of sitting in the middle of the panel, and that was helpful. I could see all the panelists at the same time and exert much better control over time allocation so all the authors had the opportunity to participate and to show their expertise. I hope I get a moderator assignment for LCC2018. I learned lots of new stuff doing my research, and I got to know the panelists and their books much better than through casual conversations.

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