Friday, September 28, 2012

how not to be awkward at book festivals, part 2: the awkward book panel

Last weekend, I went to a rather awkward book festival. On Tuesday, we discussed the Awkward Book Booth (check the comments for some brilliant reader suggestions). Today, some observations on the Awkward Book Panel.

There is nothing like an awkward panel to make book festival goers wish they had gone on a brewery tour instead. There you are, trapped in your rickety folding chair while three authors you’ve vaguely heard of say a whole lot of nothing for forty-five minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute question period in which even more nothing gets said. When the panel’s over, you can’t remember a single thing anyone said—you can’t even remember what the panel was supposed to be about. Why are you even here? Why did you think you would find this stimulating? Can we go home now?

If you are a panel-bound author, here are some ways to make things less awkward for your audience:

Know thy panel-mates

There is nothing more awkward than a panel where three authors who have obviously never heard of another spend forty-five minutes avoiding eye contact and otherwise pretending that the fact of one another’s company onstage is nothing but a mildly embarrassing coincidence.

In contrast, there is nothing more fun for a book festival audience than a panel where three authors have obvious chemistry—teasing one another, responding to or expanding on one another’s points, and generally promoting the illusion that authors all belong to one big club, complete with friendships and rivalries and much creative feuding.

If you are assigned to a panel with two authors you’ve never heard of, for heaven’s sake reach out to them before the event. Look them up on the internet. Give them a call or e-mail and introduce yourself. Perhaps you can go out for a beer the night before the festival. Perhaps you can trade battle stories of panels past. Perhaps you can discover some interesting fodder for the panel.

A panel is not a one-woman (or one-man) show. No matter how engaging you and your panel-mates may be individually, things will be awkward if the three of you don’t create something larger and more interesting together.

Be supremely tweetable

In this age of live-tweeted book festivals, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea to spend some time before the panel jotting down thoughts and statements about your panel’s topic, and asking yourself whether any of them could be re-worded to be more tweetable.

This idea will probably make some people shudder (part of me is shuddering as I write it) but if you want to get the most out of your time investment and reach a wider audience than the fifteen or twenty people sitting in those folding chairs, having some highly tweetable comments is a good way to do it.

And even if you’re not lucky enough to have an iPhone-happy audience member live-tweeting your brilliant thoughts, chances are you will still be more succinct and memorable than you would have been otherwise. (this is not to say that you should prepare for your panel by coming up with sound bytes at the expense of deep thoughts on your subject. the tweetable stuff should emerge from the deep thoughts, not exist for its own sake).

Don’t count on the moderator to ask good questions

In a perfect world, a panel moderator’s questions would be scientifically calculated to draw out your most brilliant remarks and wittiest anecdotes.

“Well, Jim,” you would say. “This reminds me of a conversation I had with President Obama the other day…”

In real life, your panel moderator will probably kick things off by reading factually incorrect bios of you and your fellow authors in a monotone, then asking questions of such galloping incoherence you will wonder if your festival-provided bottle of water has been dosed.

Classic job interview wisdom holds true for book panels: think about what you REALLY want to say, then find a way to say it, even if the actual questions are duds. Which facts, opinions, and anecdotes would be most interesting to your audience? Can you find a way to work them in? A panel with uninspired questions is just as disappointing to the audience as it is to the authors. We WANT to hear the juiciest things you have to say.

Never underestimate the power of unexpected delights

The people attending your panel are probably hot, cranky, hungry, and uncomfortable in those horrible folding chairs. If you can make our panel-going experience any less physically unpleasant, we may actually pay attention instead of day-dreaming, texting, or scouring the festival program for more stimulating events for which we could ditch your panel halfway through.

Can you get away with passing out cookies? You could lift us out of our existential misery with cookies. If cookies are too crumbly, what about a bag of Hershey’s kisses? Licorice? Tic-Tac? ANYTHING?!?!?

Point is, if you hand out a treat, we will suddenly feel clever for attending your panel, and we will spend the whole panel thinking “I can’t wait until this panel is over so I can tell my friends about the free cookies they missed” instead of just “I can’t wait until this panel is over.” And if you’re really lucky, our moods will be so brightened by the unexpected treat, we will actually listen and ask questions and remember to buy your book.

In cases where handing out food items is inappropriate, you can still delight your audience with something unexpected—a prop? a great story? a handout? a surprise announcement? Whatever it is, make us feel lucky to be there, lucky not to have missed it, and eager to tell everyone about what happened.

Have you ever been to a book panel? What made it good? What made it awkward? Are author panels even worth it, or are they generally just exercises in awkardness? Who’s the best author panelist you’ve ever seen, and why did they stand out?


  1. Great advice! I think a big part of success is the chemistry between those on stage, just as you say. We recently hosted Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff (three YA authors) at my library for an event, and they were entertaining because they are critique partners and friends so they had a good rapport and shared amusing anecdotes.

    1. oh wow! that sounds like a great combination of authors. getting friends (or enemies) on a panel generally seems like a way to spark better conversations...

  2. I've been to a couple panels. What made it good was if I liked one or all the authors who were on the panel, because it's exciting and interesting to hear them talk about their work in person. But like you said, it's important for the people on the panel to have good chemistry with each other. Not to mention that a lot of people today have short attention spans and can get restless pretty quickly; it would be disheartening to the panel members if they were to look out in the audience and see several people texting.

  3. I enjoyed these last two posts, Intern Hilary. I like that you pull no punches, and actually say *something*- Now that's helpful.
    This is what made one panel I’ve heard really successful- that the presenters were not terminally polite. Oh, there were nice to each other. But they had some biting things to say, and they gave of their hard-earned wisdom. They didn't go on and on with 'everyone can do it if you just keep on doing it' mantra that has buried real conversation in so many forums.

  4. I am grateful beyond measure for both this post and part 1. I'll be attending my first festival as an author, including a panel, at the end of October, and I feel much bolstered by this helpful, nitty-gritty, sane advice. Thanks a zillion.

    1. good luck! and please do share any insights/advice post-festival...

  5. I've seen a few panels in which there were no moderators. It worked best when it was two authors who had had time to read each others work. They were then in charge of everything, and I thought did wonderful jobs of asking interesting questions. For the audience it was thrilling to feel like we were sitting in on the kind of brilliant writer conversations that we could imagine writers having all the time.

    For event coordinators, ask yourself if the moderator is really going to add to the event. Sometimes they are clueless, which really hurts the panel.

    1. YES. what a fabulous piece of advice! I've seen so many panels where the moderator was completely useless and a barrier to good conversation. festival organizers, take note!

  6. Eek.I am neither concise nor witty. In front of a firing squad--I mean audience--I generally just try not to come off as if I've spent the entire morning drinking.

    Now I have to be clever in 140 words or less??

    #OMG #CanIJustCallinSick?

  7. Another tip: If you are the moderator (or panelist) and are not a normally funny person, please do not take this opportunity to try out being funny.

    Yes, this happened, and yes it was just as painful to watch as you are imagining it.

    Thanks for the great post.