Dear Convention organizers and volunteers,

You are the beating heart and wise soul of the science fiction convention circuit. Your involvement, planning, enthusiasm, and just plain super-hero energy are what makes the con world go ’round. I can’t even run my own life — I don’t think I could run a con. And you guys do it every year. You have to deal with hotels that forget to tell you they have a 110-decibel Christian rock praise service at the same time you are running panels, and you have to organize guests, fans, meeting rooms, con suites, and logistics that would make any mortal a gibbering idiot.

I salute you.

But. And you knew there would be a but. Because I’m a butt. But I digress.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind for programming.

Not every panel idea is a good idea. If the programming committee can’t think of three good areas of discussion for a panel topic, it’s probably not a good panel topic.  Don’t necessarily rely on the guests or the moderator to salvage a vague panel thesis. If there’s no clear idea of what the panel is about, it’s probably not going to be an interesting panel. Floundering Panelists may be a good name for a band, but it makes for a lousy panel.

Know your guests. We all fill out the questionnaires, but they don’t go that in depth. However, at a regional convention, we all know the usual suspects. So for example in Texas, for outrageous enthusiasm, you have the Four Redheads of the Apocalypse. For the curmudgeonly contrarian, there’s A. Lee Martinez. For Strong Opinions on Feminism, there’s Stina Leicht. Etc. Use your superpowers for good, and put the opinionated people on the opinionated panels. If you are running a con in Texas, you know who is likely to be there, and what their strengths are. Play to those strengths and even, dare I say it, reach out to these people outside of the questionnaire.

And that brings me to:

Don’t play it safe. Safe panel topics are boring. Con panels should be thought provoking and even provocative. They should be loud, with lots of debate. Maybe even raucous. After all, we — panelists, guests, fans — go to cons to have these conversations. We want to get into meaty discussions.

There’s a lot of competition now from media cons. I happen to believe cross-pollination is a great thing, but it means that traditional cons have to bring their A game. ConDFW was faced with a difficult situation this year as Dallas ComiCon was programmed against it. One way to get fans excited about traditional conventions is to have stellar programming. We have, what, a 75-year history or more of science fiction conventions? Let’s bring back the excitement for fans.

Dear Authors, Editors, Artists, and other Panelists,

Come on, guys. Being a pro means working a bit harder on panels. Yes, many of us have done this for a while, and it’s hard to gin up excitement about some panel ideas. But being a creator isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, and going to cons is how we give back to the community. So please, a little more enthusiasm. Engage with the audience. Be a performer. Yes, we are all a bunch of introverts, yeah yeah. In your heart of hearts, though, you know you want to steal the show.

Have you been tapped to moderate? Well, come up with questions about the panel topic and try to make them provocative and challenging. Don’t know some of the people on the panel? Look them up. Tailor questions. Make it interesting for everyone.

Panelists, remember the first part of this letter? There’s excitement, and then there’s hogging the airtime. Don’t be that panelist. Let everyone have a turn in the spotlight. We are all guilty of this one, but it’s just basic courtesy.

Have you ever been assigned to a panel that isn’t your area or you find dull as dirt? Tell the programming committee. Don’t suffer through a panel you aren’t interested in, because you sure won’t be an interesting panelist.

We’re all in this together. The pressure from media cons and the aging of fandom means that cons are threatened as never before. We need to bring in the anime fans, the cosplayers, and the media fans and show them that they can have as much fun here — and for far less money — than at a big ComiCon or Comicpalooza. For most of us, we were fans first. Let’s remember the excitement of our first cons and try to recreate that. It’s not always easy, and I will be the first to admit I didn’t exactly bring my game this weekend. But let’s try to get our mojo back, hmm?

Because the alternative is not that much fun — boring conventions with a dwindling fan base.


Categories: conventions


Marshall Ryan Maresca · February 16, 2016 at 11:57 am

I often struggle– especially as the moderator– to find that balance between being dynamic and interesting, and taking over the panel. Because I do NOT want to be that guy who just talks and talks, but on the other hand, I’ve been on that panel where if I’m NOT talking, then no one really is.

I do also try to be engaged in whatever panel I’m assigned– doing the research if needed– unless it’s just so out of my wheelhouse that I don’t even know where to start. I only once actually said “No, not that” to a panel, where it was specifically about some highly specialized mathematics and I just couldn’t understand why putting me on there was an idea in the first place.

Amy Sisson · February 16, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Well said, Patrice!

And I ditto your thanks to the folks behind the scenes.

Shai · February 17, 2016 at 11:14 am

This is why it’s so crucial to actually *go* to cons as a con-runner. The parallax shift of seeing things from both sides of the table is crucial to making good decisions and understanding the sticking points and areas of concern for members. So much of what runners do is behind the scenes or under the surface, focused on making the panel or the con as seamless an experience as possible. It can be hard to evaluate the quality of that experience from another standpoint and disconnect from the work of the con. I honestly may have a really hard time with that…I’ve worked all the cons I’ve been to except for two, and the first Consortium and ConDFW last weekend (I was planning to work, but life sort of won).

I’ve been really fortunate to work with the ApolloCon panel group and the SoonerCon panel group, who are both REALLY good. Dear god, they are meticulous. I agree completely with your assessment of what a good panel requires in terms of pre-work: understanding and identifying personalities and areas of strength in guests, and give them a balanced platform to explore and (gasp) speculate on the continuum of their area of specialty. It is a fine balance between encouraging vocal participation, and ensuring a balance of airtime. That’s one of those areas where it’s a box of chocolates scenario, and where an active and thoughtful moderator is CRUCIAL. I could talk about this for days, and I’m not even on our committee. 60% of my work happens before the con even opens, and 20% of it happens on Friday. 🙂 If you make it to Soonercon, we should have a civilized beverage and talk. It was so lovely to see you again!

Patrice Sarath · February 18, 2016 at 6:47 pm

As someone who was involved with ArmadilloCon as the writing workshop organizer, I was part of the behind-the-scenes activities of putting on a convention — though not, I hasten to add, in any great capacity. I ran my thing — the workshop — and that was it. I got to see the work that goes into a major convention, though, and my admiration is boundless. I also take part in panel topic sessions, in which we get together at the programming head’s house and hammer out good panel ideas and also figure out who would be great on that panel.

So I do know that running a con is hard work, and my post was not to denigrate the work the concom does. Far from it. And ConDFW was really up against it – that hotel was not conducive to a convention, and having a big media con counter-programmed — oof.

I would love to have a discussion about the ideal convention and how to achieve that ideal.

ConDFW 2016 Recap/Post Mortem/Summary | Dantzel Cherry · February 15, 2016 at 11:14 pm

[…] thoughts: I want to mention Patrice Sarath’s post yesterday (link here). I DID have a good time, but everything she wrote matches what I’d felt at different points […]

The Awards and Conventions | MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA · February 22, 2016 at 9:11 am

[…]  I want to know what I can do to help make them better, especially on the panels.  My friend Patrice wrote up a good piece on what could be done.  I think there should be a good way to compile lists […]

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