|Some panels are great! I like to think this one was
a really good one - then again, that's me right there.
One of the key things I look for is the mix of different types of sessions and activities in the schedule. I do not want to spend all day in panels, either as a panel participant or in the audience. I've done plenty of both, and have developed strong feelings about it. Now, a really well run panel is a fine thing - I've been on/witnessed such panels and enjoyed them greatly - but even so, I don't want to do that all day. (Note the picture of me on an science education panel with some amazing colleagues, helping undergraduates make decisions about graduate school and more. Just want to show I'm not anti-panel ...) Anyway, I prefer a schedule where a good panel is one of many formats in which I will encounter people and content. I prefer it strongly enough that I find I do not attend cons where panels are the bulk of the schedule. This applies to writing conventions as well as fan and sci-fi/genre related cons.
So here is my plea to conference schedulers - since I'd love to have more competition for my convention time and dollars - mix it up as much as possible! By that I mean find lots of different ways to engage conference goers with people and content, and use panels sparingly in just those situations where nothing else will do.
Here's a bit of what gives me the most return on my investment of time and money. I mentioned earlier some of the points - I like to: meet other fans/writers, make key contacts with publishers/editors, have a chance to promote my blog/work, learn new aspects of the genre biz, and be entertained. Here are a few session formats to add to the mix ...
- "Speed Dating" events. This is a chance either for writers to meet writers, or writers to meet editors/publishers. You can only have three-five minutes to talk about yourself, give a card, and move on. Do this on the first day of the con so people have some friendly faces to recognize for the rest of the meeting.
- Exhibit Tours/Demos. Have people sign up for *small group* tours of the exhibit area, where a knowledgeable person takes them from one table to another, meeting publishers and editors, and giving them a chance to make contacts and learn about some of the journals and publications in the field. Also gives editors/publishers a chance to demo their latest, promote subscriptions, and find new contributors in a semi-structured atmosphere. Again, do this early in the con so that people can get together at another time and continue conversations.
- Classic Oral Presentation. This is another format that was once overdone, but now has been replaced by panels. Have one person give a presentation with compelling visuals, and then take questions. Works well for content heavy material, like a science presentation at a sci-fi con. I've both done these and attended them and they work well if the speaker is properly prepared (and goes easy on the Powerpoint and gives out free swag …)
- Classic Workshop/Class. Work with a presenter or small group of experts and workshop a bit of writing, or learn about an aspect of the craft. This can take any of the formats a classic workshop might take. It's important that it puts the attendee in a 'hands on' mode, and is best if they take something away that they can continue to build on later.
- Table Round Robin. Take five tables and put five experts on the topic at hand at each table. Have small discussions at the tables about the topic, moderated by the expert, then the expert at the table reports out to the whole room about what was discussed. The moderator of the event as a whole takes the five reports and summarizes discussion. Experts are each given a chance to provide one comment at the end. This can also be organized as a 'Birds of a Feather.' This is like a Table Round Robin but more informal. Have a larger umbrella topic and subtopics. Let people choose the subtopic they like and have an informal discussion.
- "Book Club" events. This works if attendees are willing to do reading of pre-circulated material before the event. A particular book, poem, movie or whatever is read/watched before the event by all participants. People gather for an informal (or more structured) discussion of the work.
- "Open Mic" events. Give conference goers a chance to engage with one another over their writing (or whatever they are there for, music, fandom, etc.) Don't just have one … there is never enough time. Including drinks 'n snacks is a great draw, too.
- Poster Presentations. Would love to see this at a con, where attendees get to present posters on the topic of the 'session.' This might be something to try small at first - fifteen people create posters on a subject before the con, bring them along, put them up on boards provided by the con, and then there is an open session to review them, with the authors standing by for questions. These are standard in my industry, and are usually accompanied by drinks to break the ice …
- Tweet-Ups, Blog-Ups, etc. Create opportunities for those people on social media to get together, follow one another, and exchange tips of the trade.
A last thought …
In all honesty I'm not a fan of keynote/plenary talks and speeches. I have a lot of social anxiety about being 'trapped' at such an event. I always need to feel I can easily slip away if I have a panic attack or such (dealing with my mental illnesses as I do). I tend to skip these, find one or two others who are also not fans of keynotes, and go to lunch/dinner someplace else.
What's your take on panels? What else could be included in the schedule of cons to keep it lively and value-packed for you? What are your favorite conference formats?