Worldcon 76: Moderating My First Panel While Working Through Social Anxiety (Blog + Video Panel discussion)

Welcome to my "Worldcon 76" series, where I'll be breaking down my time at the world's longest-running science fiction and fantasy convention.

Nerve-wracking. Empowering. 

These are the words I would use to describe my experience moderating my first Worldcon panel, What Turns People Onto Horror. So, why these words? Let's start with the "nerve-wracking" bit, which mostly stems from social anxiety and imposter syndrome. I was a speaker on just such a panel, Imposter Syndrome: You DO Deserve To Be Here (which I'll write about in a forthcoming post). Knowing that my insecurities were not going to vanish just because I wanted them to, I set out to make sure I didn't let them get the better of me. Being the moderator meant that I was in charge of the panel and its success or failure was partly on me. Or so I felt that way. After all, a panel = moderator + speakers.

The following approach worked for me as it removed as many variables as possible from the equation. I also took into account my experiences as a speaker and adapted them to make sure I was as prepared as possible. 

 From Google images

From Google images

  • Have passion for the topic you're moderating or speaking about. This was a key component in finding my strength. Whenever I started to doubt myself, my love of dark literature, cinema, and arts reminded me that I had every right to be there and reach out (or "bother" as my brain tends to reason) to the speakers. 
  • Look up the panelists and hunt down their emails. This step turned out to be very important, as one of the speakers had no idea they were even on the panel!
  • Decide if you want to introduce the speakers or have them introduce themselves. If the former, make sure to request a brief bio (with a word count limit!) by a set deadline. Ideally, I wanted the information ahead of time so I could put it all in one document, thereby removing a potential unknown. But if no one had gotten back to me, I would have let the speakers introduce themselves. The point was to have a plan and remove variables from the equation. 
  • Email the speakers. Introduce yourself and send them the panel, date, time, and room number, and try to get the discussion going by including questions.  
  • Always ask for pronouns.  Always.
  • Don't assume all the speakers on the panel are familiar with the subject matter of the panel. Panel assignment is not always perfect, and sometimes panelists have no familiarity at all with the subject of their panel! In my experience, some speakers will be straightforward about whether they are knowledgable enough to contribute constructively, but others will drop the bomb only on the day of the panel. Whether that bomb is constructive or destructive only Fortune knows. 
  • Don't get offended if no one responds back to the email. Life happens. That being said, a ping never hurts, especially if you are waiting for information, like a biography or graphics. This is where that deadline comes in handy. 
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  • If anxiety tends to memory wipe your short-term brain (sigh), write down everything you want to say, or make an outline. For me this means clearly writing down how I want to structure the panel and planning the questions ahead of time, from the intro all the way to "closing statement: remember to mention X, Y, Z." This is not a crutch, this is me taking anxiety por los cuernos (by the horns). 
  • Practice the questions out loud to get a real feeling for them, and don't be afraid to practice with a friend. And perhaps with some whiskey because, why not.
  •  If you don't know how to pronounce a speaker's name or series, ask. And unless you have an amazing memory, write out their names phonetically for reference. I wish I had done this, but I had hoped that my anxiety would not win since I had asked right before the panel started. Alas, anxiety-induced sieve-brain kicked in. The mispronunciation made for some fun dialogue, but I wish I had gotten all the names right, especially because I get tired of having my own name or series mispronounced. 
  • As a speaker, I really appreciate it when moderators send out an email the day before the panel asking speakers to meet up in person before the panel if they are able. On panels, you can always expect to see the following--no response, rescheduling requests, cancellations, miscommunications, shadows trying to sink into the pores on your skin, Risen chewing at your ankles. Don't take it personally if no one responds or use it as a measure of your worth as a moderator. Life happens. The important thing is to give the speakers the opportunity to meet up in advance if they wish to do so.
  • Even if you've already "met" via email, don't forget to introduce yourself as the moderator to everyone.
  • Test your mic and make sure to speak into it. Ahem, yeah that is something I definitely need to keep in mind.
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  • Don't be afraid to lay down ground rules for the panelists. I did this as a way to preempt any one speaker from dominating the panel. The speakers seemed on board with my "rule" and even used it a few times during the discussion. Did it help? Who knows! But I'm glad I put such a rule in place.
  • Be careful with two-part questions. My opening question was a two-parter which, as you can see in the video, worked best as two separate questions. To be honest, by the time everyone had responded to the first part of the two-part question, I had to play back the panel in my head and ask myself if the second part had already been answered. I'm sure the audience felt the same way. 
  • Allow time for audience comments. 
  • Thank the audience for attending.
  • Thank the speakers for their time. 
  • Breathe!
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And now comes the next part: "Empowering." As I said "thank you" to everyone and packed up my tattered black journal, I felt the nervous energy brewing in me morph into relief. I had successfully moderated my first panel without too many hiccups. Did this experience erase my insecurities? Hahaha, no. But it did show me that by taking steps to manage the triggers that amplify my anxiety and imposter syndrome, I could tame them and come out on top. Every step I took in preparing for this panel was a rung I added to my #buildaladder, including submitting the panel and agreeing to be the moderator. All in all, this seed of strength was a marvelous beginning to Worldcon 76 and one I found myself drawing from as the convention rolled on . . .

Tomorrow, "Worldcon 76: My Mexicanx Initiative Expeirence" (Edit: Turns out I had more to say than I thought. So, post coming your way on THURSDAY 8/30. My apologies.)
E.M. Markoff is the award-winning Latinx author of stories about damaged heroes and imperfect villains. Her works include To Nurture & Kill and The Deadbringer, which Booklist described as "A fantastic action-adventure, tinged with Mexican folklore, that will appeal to fans of A Game of Thrones."