Moderator Tip Sheet

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The Minicon Moderator Tip Sheet

by The Minicon 25 Programming Committee, Sharon Kahn, Co-Chair

Disclaimer: These guidelines and suggestions are the distillation of a series of brainstorming sessions. In other words, this document was originated by committee. So if it waffles, backpedals and blatantly contradicts itself, that's just the way it goes. The project was started and organized by 1990 Minicon Programming Co-Chair Sharon Kahn, and involved many people's input. Dave Romm volunteered to take the mass of data, add his further input, organize and format it for the Mac, and give it to Sharon for final revision. What you see here is Dave's file, adapted to html, not Sharon's final, though changes were slight.

Copyright 1990, 1995 by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society, Inc.


Presumably, you are looking at this document because you are planning to originate a programming item, moderate it, or both. If you are entering this process sometime after Section 1, it is strongly suggested that you find out what the originator of the panel had in mind, and what, if anything, has been communicated to the panelists so far.



Exactly what is the point? Be specific. Come up with a 1-3 sentence description that will leave no doubt in the mind of all the panel participants what they will be talking about. This description will also appear in the program book.


Why are you doing this? To inform? Entertain? Showcase a GOH? Spark a group discussion? Stir up a controversy? It has been suggested that there are only two possible purposes for a panel: to inform or to entertain (with the best panels, of course, accomplishing both.)


There seem to be 3 general approaches to titles:

1. Explicit: "Collaborations: How It's Done, Why We Shouldn't Do It, and Why We Keep Doing it Anyway"

2. Clever: "Worldcon Envy: Does Size Matter?"

3. Hybrid: "Lime Jello, Myth or Reality: The Origins of Fannish Legends"

The entire topic is surprisingly controversial, actually. But everybody agrees that titles should not be overly generic, for instance "Women in SF" or "Fantasy or Science Fiction?" The more specific the better.


Experts suggest an ideal panel size of 5 including the moderator, rarely fewer than 4 or more than 6. Remember, 60 minutes divided by 5 panelists means 12 minutes for each person, assuming the audience doesn't participate (ha!).


Now you know what you are doing and why, let's talk about format.

  • Panel, Discussion Group, Debate, Free-for-all? This should be decided on far enough in advance to put in the program book.
  • Question Policy: Audience questions can be encouraged throughout or only taken during designated question period(s). Be sure to make the policy clear to all panelists (and then to the audience during the panel).
  • Facilities: Do you need a large room, a small room or an intimate space? Will you be seated behind a long table, around a round table or just chairs facing an audience? How many microphones will you need? Do you need special equipment like a slide projector or overhead?


There is no single "best" way to moderate a panel. The style you use depends not only on your personality, but the topic and purpose of the panel, the personalities of the panelists, and what happens when the bullets start flying. In Section 3, you will find a list moderator styles that have been observed in action at conventions that are now history. We had fun identifying these and we hope they provide food for thought.



Including but not limited to:

  • Panel title, 1-3 sentence description.
  • At least 3 questions that can be asked during the course of the panel. A starter question or two and then keep several emergency questions handy.
  • Panelist names and pertinent info about each (names of books, etc.)


If possible. If not, at least know their latest book or a recent accomplishment.


If possible. Let them know if you will be gathering in the Green Room before the panel.


Either one by one or in a group. The Green Room is available for this purpose. If you can't meet in the Green Room, at least spend a few seconds before you convene to introduce yourselves.


  • Review panel description, purpose and format with the participants.
  • If you haven't already, introduce yourself and each other.
  • Check with the participants: Anything you've thought of since we last talked? Anything in particular I should ask? Anything to avoid? Get preferences and suggestions.
  • Pick up your panel's table tents before your panel.
  • If panelists seem to need warming up, try out one of your questions on them. If they're shy, feed them several questions so they can think about their answers for a while.
  • There are refreshments in the Green Room which participants can take to the panel.
  • Relax.


Stop off at the Green Room.

Pick up the table tents for your panel, and maybe some water.

Arrive on time.

A few minutes early is ok. If you're arriving from the Green Room, arrive all at once; it really impresses the audience.

Sit down.

If possible, arrange the tent cards yourself so the panelists are where you want them. Feel free to move people if they've beaten you to the seating arrangements. You may choose to sit at the end of the row of panelists instead of in the middle. It will make it easier to keep an eye on everybody.

Start the panel

Establish rapport with the audience. The traditional opening is "Hello? Hello? Is this mike on?" If it is, smile and continue. If it isn't, turn it on (or otherwise make arrangements to be heard).

Identify yourself

and briefly describe the panel.

Introduce panelists

referring to your notes as needed.

Give the ground rules

("If this goes according to plan..."). Be sure to address Question Protocol (questions taken any time or only during specified question period)

Throw out the first question.

Think carefully about who to address it to! The first questioner will set the tone for the panel. Some possibilites: The most senior GoH, the person with the most experience, the quietest person on the panel, the person who orginally proposed the idea for the panel, the person most likely to set the tone you are striving for. Play out the question, giving everybody a chance at it.


Finish on time!

Give a 5 or 10 minute warning

When time is running out. Issue a summing-up question. If you have to interrupt the last person, do so. "I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you all for coming."

Thank the panelists for participating.

If a discussion is still raging

Suggest that the discussion can continue in Krushenko's (or any open site, including the consuite or the bar).

Announce the next panel.


We present these as examples for your consideration. Most modera- tors combine elements of more than one style. The style used for any panel depends on the personality of the moderator and the interaction of the participants.


Keeps things moving, involves everyone, facilitates discussion without taking sides or expressing opinions. A good even-handed moderator can moderate a panel on a topic he knows nothing about and isn't even interested in.


Much like even-handed, but even more so. Especially attentive to quiet panelists who need to be drawn out and encouraged to enter the discussion.


Joins in the discussion and expresses opinions, but without taking over or dominating the panel. At times, panel may appear to be a round-table discussion with no one moderating. However, the moderator is in fact leading the discussion, raising questions, encouraging participation by everyone and dealing with interruptions. This style is difficult to pull off. You must be able to split yourself into 2 people--the moderator and the participant. Do not call on yourself more often than any other participant.


A moderator who naturally tends toward Participating Moderator trying very hard to function as an Even-Handed. Produces tremendous dramatic tension as audience waits for moderator to crack.


Intensely interested in the topic, but hasn't made up his mind how he feels about it yet and is hoping to gain insight into the subject (frequently a difficult or controversial one) by questioning the panelists.


This moderator believes that life is a bit dull without conflict. Specializes in questions like, "I sense that you may have some disagreement with the last speaker," and "You aren't going to let him get away with that, are you?"

Not to be too judgmental or anything, we do hope you avoid elements of the following styles:


Not only knows nothing about the topic of this panel or the people on it, he didn't even know he was moderating it until about 5 minutes ago. (Best solution is to admit your ignorance ["But I find the topic fascinating!"] and get the panelists to suggest appropriate questions, perhaps when you have them introduce themselves.)


Runs dull topics into the ground, interrupts discussions just as they're getting interesting, lets one panelist dominate the time, doesn't prompt reticent speakers, cuts off panelists in mid-sentence but lets audience loudmouths run on forever, etc.


Too sleepy (or otherwise underbrained) to pay attention. Calls the panelists by their wrong names, misremembers their books, gets the topic of the panel wrong and/or is still trying to get in the last word from the previous panel.


Prepare in advance

But go with the flow. Don't be afraid to alter your original plan radically if it seems like a good idea. But do have a plan. Maybe more than one.

Keep the level of energy high.

Be aware when a question or topic has run its course and be prepared to change direction.

Play devil's advocate

if things get dull.

Refer to your prepared questions

when you need a new topic.

Watch the audience.

Start taking questions if too many hands are up; pick up the pace if people start to fidget (or leave).

Repeat questions from the audience

Especially if the room is large.

Pay attention to the panelists' answers

Ask follow-up questions if appropriate.

Pay attention to the people farthest from you

They may be participating less. Seat shy or quiet panelists close to you.

Pay attention to body language.

Watch for signs of impatience, annoyance or general disagreement with the last speaker (frowns, muscle tension, leaning forward, leaning backward, folding arms across chest). If a light bulb suddenly goes on over someone's head, call on them quick before they forget the idea!

Use body language.

Lean forward slightly and make eye contact to encourage a shy panelist. To cut someone off politely: lean back, catch their eye. If that doesn't do it, slowly reach toward the mike.

Prompt the audience

if necessary. Lead the applause or laughter, but squelch any which goes on too long.

Remember: The audience didn't come to see you.

Sometimes the moderator's main job is to stay out of the way. This happens more often than you might think.

Be firm.

Don't lose control of the panel or audience.

Have fun.

Encourage the panelists to have fun too. If the panelists enjoy themselves, so will the audience.

Moderator Emergency Kit


"Let's open the panel to questions from the audience."

"What's the greatest challenge for you in your work right now?"

"Is there anything we're leaving out here that needs to be addressed?"

"What's the biggest controversy in this area?"

"What's the greatest misconception people have about...?"

"How did you handle this problem when you were working on... (insert book title or character name from author's work)?"

"What made you decide to tackle this subject?"

"Speaking as a (person not normally involved in this area), what's your perspective?"

"What's the question you are most tired of hearing, and what would you like to say about it so you never have to answer it again?"

"What question do you think doesn't get asked enough, and how would you address it?"

Ask another person on the panel the question.

Ask a follow-up question.

Ask a different person to comment on another panelist's answer.


"Excuse me, but we have wandered far afield..."

"Getting back to the original topic..."

"That would be a good subject for another panel."

"Excuse me, but we haven't heard from (reticent panelist) in a while."

"Let's take a question from the audience."


"No comments from the peanut gallery."

"In order to make the best possible use of our panelists, we're only taking questions from the audience, not statements."

"We're only taking statements from the audience, not questions."

"Oh, let's not always see the same hands."

"Thank you for your interesting suggestion. You may be right."

"You're making some rather broad generalizations."

"Ok, ok, I think I understand the question. Now, which of our panelists wants to handle it?"

"Would someone in the back please call hotel security."


- It's only an hour.

- This has never killed anyone yet.

- I do not have to go home with this person.

- It's okay to do this -- I'm the moderator.

- Hey, this is a nice looking tablecloth!

Moderator Preparation Sheet

Name of Panel

Day, Time, Room


Panelist Intros (including yourself)









Starter Questions









Emergency Questions and notes