Chairing panels at writers’ festivals: a few things I’ve learnt

ubud

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 ‘Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity’ session. Kadek Adidharma, Dian Hartati, yours truly, Ng Yi-Sheng & Antony Loewenstein. Pic from official festival Facebook page.

I’ve attended several writers’ festivals over the last three years, and in the past year have begun to chair or sit on panels at some of these. I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learnt about moderating, through observation and experience.

Prior to the festival:

  • Source you panelists’ latest books as soon as possible. Read them! And don’t just read them – take notes, gather biographical info, and gather a few facts about where they’re from (country, city, culture etc.) It helps to contextualise the talk, and helps you to understand them and their work. If you have time, read their back-list titles also.
  • Establish contact with the panelists via email a few weeks before the session. Ask an open question or two relating to the panel. Ask them also if they would like to contribute any ideas. Do make sure you find out what is the thing they most want to talk about in front of an audience and include it in your questioning. After you’ve established these few important things, closethe email conversation before it gets too thick. If you discuss too much beforehand, the session will lack freshness and spontaneity. Be careful with overbearing personalities – you must call the shots and make the decisions in the end on how the conversation will be steered, so there’s balance. Some writers do like to know how the session will run (so they can prepare a few notes) – give them your outline in brief, but don’t give them specific questions, or else on the day it will feel rehearsed, and they’ll end up stressed out if they haven’t talked about everything they were prepared to talk about.
  • When you’re communicating, also ask what they’re sick of talking about (and then decide whether it’s still worth asking for the audience’s sake). Also ask what they never get asked, and would like to.
  • Don’t meet all together until just before the session, again to preserve freshness, interest, curiosity towards each other, and spontaneity. Put your panelists at ease before the session. Ask again what their hot topics are, so they know you’ll be covering them.
  • My preference is for writing down open questions relating to the topic, as well as more specific ones relating to the works of each author (and the links between each of their works). Many people use mind-maps instead. How you prepare what you’re going to ask is up to you. They may change during the session (see below).
  • This is more one for directors and programmers, and a hard one to get right, but in my experience, large panels (of more than four or so) only work if all the guests bring different points of interest/disparate backgrounds and experiences to the panel, or come at the discussion from different angles. Otherwise, when moderating and trying to give everyone a say, the session can end up being very repetitive. If panelists are too similar, they’ll just nod and repeat what the last person said, which isn’t great for the audience, nor does it make the authors look original or interesting.

 

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 ‘Global Nomads’ session. Pic – Ruby Murray.

During the session:

  • Panelists will most of the time come to the stage with something burning to get off their chest, in relation to their work/themselves and/or the topic at hand. Even though your carefully planned questions, or the direction of your conversation will lead you to this gem (something you’ve either acknowledged or sparked in the email contact), they are often so keen to say it, and not forget to say it, that they’ll give the game away early (even if it has nothing to do with the direct question you’ve asked). There are a couple of ways to try and counter this. Perhaps a quick word to the panelists beforehand, letting them know they can trust that you will get to this *important thing*. Or during the session, if they go into it too early, attempt to ease them out slightly, by saying something like ‘I’d really like to talk about that a bit more in a minute, but other guest, what do you think of the question I was originally asking?’
  • It’s fine for a moderator to have their own opinion on the topic but the panel is not about them. If you have something of related interest to share with the audience, frame some of your questions anecdotally ie. ‘I know at Bookseller+Publisherwe get bla bla bla, have you all found this is the case in your bla?’ Then prompt elaboration on the answers.
  • During the session feel free to scratch out questions and write new ones. Pay attention to your panelists and bounce off any juicy points of interest. Keep in mind the topics that are most important to them, and those of interest to the audience.
  • Some moderators use too many quotes and they just end up looking like smart-arses: ‘I’m more intelligent than the audience members and maybe even this author because I remember all these quotes’. I love a session with one or two really well-placed quotes, but any more than that is kinda pretentious.
  • 15-20 minutes of audience question time is good, but keep an eye on the audience, particularly if it’s a hot topic (you may want to let them at the panel earlier). Also, have plenty more questions ready if there are no hands raised at first (they can be shy) then go back to them. Also, if one hot-stuff author is getting asked all the audience questions, play off it to ask the other authors a similar thing (so it’s nice and even). eg. Audience member ‘So, famous author, would you ever consider going out with me?’ The author answers ‘probably not’. Then you say to the other panelists: ‘What about you not-so-famous author and other not-so-famous author, have you ever dated a fan?’ etc.
  • A very obvious one, but one I personally battle (and know how bad it sounds from sessions I’ve attended) – avoid ‘ah’ and ‘um’ as much as you can.
  • Pay attention, stay interested and focused on your panelists and the audience. Take a risk – ask them something that’s hard for you to ask. Chances are, the audience members are also wondering about this too. Have fun – seriously, you’re having a conversation with talented and (hopefully) fascinating people. Show them you’re enthusiastic to be there. If you’re engaged, the audience is much more likely to be engaged.

Thanks to Adelaide’s Format Festival, Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Melbourne Writers Festival, Newcastle’s National Young Writers Festival and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival for inviting me to participate this year.

11 thoughts on “Chairing panels at writers’ festivals: a few things I’ve learnt

  1. Apparently if you chair a session at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, you don’t need to have read the book. At least that was my experience this year.

  2. Oh no! That sucks Irfan. I think the only time that would be acceptable would be if the chair was a fill-in for someone who had to drop out at the last minute. But if they’ve had a few weeks to prepare, as most do, they should read the book/s.

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  4. Angela – they are great notes. I always think that chairing a session is the hardest job at any writers festival and we spend a lot of time and energy making sure our chairs get the best information and training they can. We have a series of hands-on workshops for chairs in the lead up to the festival and these are run by the very experienced chair, interviewer and broadcaster Peter Clarke. We also send chairs very extensive notes on the logistics of chairing as well as good interviewing techniques. The chairs get sent copies of the books of the authors they are interviewing and are also put in touch with their panellists.

    I’m puzzled by Irfan’s comment as he appeared in two sessions at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. One was an interview with Waleed Aly and I know that Waleed had read Irfan’s book. The other session wasn’t a panel or an interview but a reading by three authors and we didn’t ask the chair of those sessions to read the books as it wasn’t necessary. The chair’s role was to introduce the author and to manage any audience q&a – there wasn’t any interviewing involved. Whilst it would be terrific if the chair could have read Irfan’s book for that session it wasn’t essential and would not have made much difference to the role he had to fill. That particular chair managed all 7 readings we had at the festival this year and did so very well. I was impressed and I’m sorry that Irfan wasn’t.
    Rosemary Cameron
    Director, Melbourne Writers Festival

  5. Hi Rosemary – Peter Clarke is definitely one of the best chairs I’ve ever seen. I can imagine his course would be very valuable. Michael Williams and Sally Warhaft were other stand-outs at MWF this year.

    I didn’t see Irfan’s sessions so I can’t comment on that one.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Angela

  6. Ms Cameron, regarding the importance of chairs having read SOME of panellists’ work – obviously there will be times when that’s difficult to manage, for example if someone is replacing a moderator. I would have hoped most people invited to moderate would read some of the books, most of the time.

  7. Good stuff Angela. The best people at this sort of thing have done enough homework beforehand that they can relax on the day and actually listen to what the panelists are saying, and as you recommend, enjoy the experience.

  8. Rosemary, I have no complaints with the chair for the readings. But unfortunately Waleed had not read the book. This was obvious both to me and my publicist who was there before the session. It was also obvious during the session itself.

    Plus the choice of Waleed was a little stereotypical, don’t you think?

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