K. Tempest Bradford, Joanna Lowenstein, Tanya DePass Programming
2016 is upon us — and WisCon 40 is just four months away! That means it’s time to submit panel and other programming ideas. (Technically, you could have done so right after WisCon 39, but this is the time of year we start talking deadlines and such.) To send us your idea, go to wiscon.net/idea and fill out the form. Simple!
Who can submit ideas?
Anyone! Obviously, we encourage people who plan to attend WisCon to submit, but you don’t have to be registered to do so. If you think you might come to WisCon but don’t know for sure and really want there to be a panel about That Thing You Love if you do come, send us the idea. If you think there should be a conversation about a Very Important Thing even if you’re not there to have that conversation, send us the idea. If you’re coming to WisCon for sure and want a panel to happen but don’t want to be on that panel, send us the idea. And, of course, if you’re coming and you have a panel you want to happen and you want to be on it, send us the idea.
Does the panel have to be fully formed and perfect with the Best Title Ever and a description that would make the Restoration Hardware copy writers weep with envy?
Nope. You can submit sketches of ideas, half-formed thoughts, vague outlines. The programming team will do their best to interpret what you give us and turn it into a proposed panel with a title and full description.
If you would like to submit ideas with semi-polished titles and descriptions but feel like you need some input or help, you can always create a WisCon Brainstorming Thread on your blog or on social media. In fact, the comment section of this post is a free space for panel brainstorming and members of the programming team will pop in to assist up until the deadline.
Are we only accepting panel ideas, or are we up for suggestions outside of the 3 – 5 people sit behind a table and talk for an hour format?
We are very interested in any kind of programming ideas. Anything from roundtable discussions to group participation activities to performances to puppet shows and anything else. The only exceptions: Readings and Academic Talks/Presentations. Those are handled by other departments.
Please feel free to think outside the box and propose things we haven’t ever done before. We can’t promise to be able to make it possible this year. We can say that we’re open to new stuff. Just do us one favor: if you’re not registered yet, provide some way for us to contact you if we have questions in the description.
Is there a limit to how many ideas I can submit?
Nope. Well…okay, your limit is 100.
When is the deadline for submitting programming ideas?
What happens after I submit a programming idea?
Once the deadline hits and we gather all the submissions together, the programming team combs through them all and decides which panels will move onto the next step: the Programming Survey. The Survey is a list of all the viable panel ideas submitted, which is sent to WisCon attendees. The WisCon community votes on the panels, marking the ones they’d like to attend and which they want to be on as panelist or moderator. The panels with the most interest then move on to the final schedule.
How do you decide which panels go on the survey?
We try to err on the side of inclusiveness on that first pass. We weed out panels that are inappropriate for WisCon or that are just inappropriate period. We may also combine panels or other types of programming items that are very similar to each other. We also do some light massaging of panel titles and descriptions for clarity or, if they are simple sketches of an idea, we make them more robust. At this stage none of the descriptions and titles are final, and we welcome feedback from the community about language and appropriateness.
WisCon programming items are inclusive. You don’t have to be a published expert to be a great WisCon presenter or panelist. If you are new to panels or need a refresher, this list will help you be a great panelist.
Preparing for the convention
Your moderator will contact you before the convention. Respond to your moderator’s email. This is your chance to define the format, structure, and scope of the panel.
Re-read the panel description and raise questions about anything that’s not clear.
Let the other panelists know what your interpretation of the panel description is. Everyone doesn’t have to agree to the same take on a panel, but it is helpful to let each other know where you’re coming from before hand. If you are going to discuss specific books, mention them in your email to the other panelists. You don’t all need to have read the same books to have an interesting discussion.
Formulate the things you’d like to convey during the allotted time Keep this list simple. You may want to keep the sub-topics to no more than three.
Different people have different styles and different panels have different structures. Decide beforehand how structured your panel will be and how much time will be devoted to panelist participation and audience participation.
Do your homework. Gather the names of the books and authors you want to discuss. People in the audience will ask for specifics. Read, view, listen to relevant materials. Prepare notes and/or spend time thinking about the topic. You may do this on your own and in emails with the other panelists, depending on how the group decides to interact before the convention.
At the Con
Meet up in the 2nd floor Green Room 10 minutes before the panel start time. This gives you an opportunity to meet fellow panelists and finalize details.
Start on time! If unavoidably late, quietly enter the room, take a place at the table and wait for your mod to fold you into the panel-already-in-progress. Don’t apologize for being late. The audience is paying attention to the ongoing discussion, not to you.
Share the time with other panelists and the audience. Respect the other panelists views. If you disagree don’t make it personal.
Be aware that the other panelists may have as much to say as you do. Let the moderator manage the panelists’ time. In an hour-and-fifteen minute panel for five panelists there are roughly 15 minutes apiece not counting audience input. WisCon audiences want to get into the discussion as soon as possible. Prepare to answer lots of audience questions. The moderator will let the audience know how soon they will start taking questions, while setting up the panel. Defer to the moderator as they directs the conversation.
Bring a notepad. Discussion moves very quickly and it can help to take notes of what you want to cover when the moderator gets back to you.
Look at the audience. Resist the temptation to address your comments solely to a fellow panelist, even when responding to a specific point.
Speak one at a time. Refrain from whispering with other panelists.
Use the microphone, when available. Make sure it is turned on. If using a microphone is new to you ask the moderator for instructions.
Thank you for volunteering to moderate at WisCon. Our members — creative, passionate, and eager to participate — really shine with the guidance of a skillful moderator.
Moderator Training Resources
In 2023, Panels Programming is offering moderator training for any WisCon member who wants to join, from new mods to experienced folks. Here is a video of one of the training sessions, hosted by Gretchen, followed by some resources that everyone is welcome to use:
Read the panel description a few times. (If you’re fuzzy on what’s intended, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for guidance.) There have been many WisCon panels that have run aground on clashing interpretations. How do you understand the issues raised in the panel description? What would you need to know to answer the questions raised? As you moderate, you are encouraging the panelists to share their knowledge with the audience, so you need to know who on the panel knows what. This is a good time for yes/no questions. Do they agree with the underlying premise(s) of the panel description? Do they have examples to support that belief? Find out if panelists fall into one, two, or more groups. The more opinions in the group, the less time will be available to express each of them, so you may decide to narrow the panel focus a little by only exploring one or two points with the panelists.
Find out about the panelists
Contact your panelists. Introduce yourself. Describe your understanding of the panel description. Inquire about theirs: do they agree with the proposition as stated? what is their interest? Ask about relevant resources. Elicit 2-3 points crucial to each panelist. Suggest or solicit panel formats. Offer ways for panelists to contact you. Invite them to respond by your deadline.
Decide on your overall format
There are interrelated decisions here. How long should each panelist speak? If (and when) does the audience get involved? Set times for each section. Will each panelist speak on the topic for a few minutes or will you launch right into your discussion questions? If you have particular moment you’re working for, what will lead up to it and how will you wind down from it?
WisCon’s standard room setup is a long table draped in white with the panelists sitting behind it, facing the audience. If the room has microphones, make sure that everyone uses them. Some of us have hearing loss and even the folks on the floor in the back want to hear. If you sit on the end at right angles to the panel, it’s easy to maintain eye contact with all the panelists, but some of the audience is behind you. If you sit in the middle of the panel, you can act as a “bridge” among the panelists, and you have good audience eye contact.
If you are unable to interact with panelists pre-con
Use the magic message board (ask at the Registration Desk) to meet up with your panelists if you can.
Try to quiz each panelist in the Green Room, soliciting three points they wish to make.
Start the panel with 5 minutes of questions from the audience, which you jot down and crystallize. Structure the rest of the panel around the panelists answering those off the tops of their heads.
In the Green Room
Get name tents.
Ask how panelists pronounce their names, if necessary write down a rhyming phrase.
Go over the agenda: how much time for each part of the program.
Describe your approach to handling audience questions.
What to Bring
A time keeping tool.
Note taking tools.
Pocket Program Book (panel title and description, panelist bios).
Name tents (pick up these and your panelists in the Green Room).
Questions, a couple to start discussion and some extras in case discussion falters or wanders away from the topic.
During the Panel
Start and end the panel on time! Even if some panelists are late, go ahead and start. If discussion is still going strong at the end, urge those interested to Spontaneous Programming.
Making it flow
Take note of interesting comments made. You can refer back to them or ask follow-up questions.
Pay attention to how much each panelist is speaking. You can interrupt or check someone who is talking more than others, or ask specific questions of someone who is speaking less.
Use your prepared questions if things get stuck.
During the panel, avoid yes/no questions in favor of “wh-” questions, for example: “When… or Why … or How … did you come to that conclusion?” or “What has that meant to you as a …reader? or …viewer? or …writer?” or “That’s interesting, can you tell me more about that?”
Managing audience questions
Make your guiding philosophy and mechanics clear during startup housekeeping and follow-through. Every way of managing the speaking queue involves some arbitrary decisions; it’s rare that everyone who wants to gets the chance to speak.
Please repeat audience questions. This helps everyone, including those of us with hearing loss, particularly those who lip-read because they do not have to look away from the panel. Also, don’t put your hands or any objects in front of your mouths when speaking.
Who do you want to privilege?
If you call on the person who makes the most noisy handwaves and “ooh! ooh!” then you’re privileging the folks who feel comfortable drawing attention to themselves.
You can decide to always call on members of one group first: make it clear at the beginning and offer to discuss it after the program item is over.
You can randomize speaking by asking those with their hands raised to self-select: e.g., “If you were born after April, put your hands down” or “People who live West of the Mississippi, put your hands down” or “If your middle name contains the letter “e,” put your hands down.”
You can keep a continuous queue throughout the panel, taking notes of people by name (if you can read the tags) or clothing/hair color/room location. The drawback is at least half the questions are out of sync with the discussion.
You can solicit comments/questions on a particular topic, then direct closure of that topic’s discussion — “Anyone have something to add on this topic” — and move on. The advantage to this is it makes space for deliberate thinkers to formulate their questions.
Reflecting the themes in the panelists’ comments, you can seek out audience members who have complementary or contrasting experiences. If the panelist mentions marine biology and its influence on poetic forms, for example, you can ask, “Has anyone here lived at sea for a substantial time? How did that affect your reading style?”
When you signal one person to begin speaking, decide who the next speaker (audience or panel) is right away, so you have someone to point to if you need to deflect attention. Don’t signal the second person to start until it’s time!
“This is more of a comment than a question.”
There will always be members who say this; it’s up to you whether you allow them to continue. If not, announce your policy at startup housekeeping. When someone starts with “More of a comment than a question” interrupt, look them steadily in the eye, and say “Thank you, we’re focusing on questions today,” then rapidly move to the next person in the queue.
Moderating Challenging Situations
The insistent hand waver/seagull “me me me!”
Use non-verbals to communicate — “I see you, I recognize your desire to speak” — regardless of whether you intend to call on them.
Look directly in their eyes.
Nod, mouth “got you,” jot down their name, or mime jotting down their name.
Mime “I see you,” use first two fingers to point at your eyes, then move the back of your pointing hand out towards them (don’t point at their face, as it’s insulting in some cultures).
Outrage and fury directed at another member
Acknowledge strong emotions neutrally without judging their propriety or truth. Deflect emotion from the person to their ideas or choice of language. (Separate someone’s behavior from their essence.)
Give the outraged person your undivided attention for 5 seconds but do not react in any way, that is, no nodding, no “uh huh.”
Say, “I understand this (or “X,” if you can name it) is very important to you. What about that idea (or statement or viewpoint) would you like to comment on?”
“Passing the baton” from discursive talkers to a new speaker
There are always people who don’t want to relinquish the floor.
If you hear them winding down, jump in quickly with “Thank you for that. Now, moving on…”
If they don’t wind down, or don’t take that hint, when you call on the next speaker, in addition to pointing (or using name) use your eye gaze and body position (point your heart at the next speaker). If the current speaker doesn’t pick up on this signal, put your attention back on the talkative person and match their output. Nod your head and say “uh huh uh huh” slightly louder each time, and then speak over them, “That’s very interesting. Yes, yes. Time to move on.” Pause, then point out the next speaker. This works with panelists and audience members.
Wrapping it Up
When the Green Room’s “10 minutes left” volunteer pops in, immediately focus on wrapping up (because it really does take 10 minutes!). Say, “It looks like it’s time to bring our discussion to a close.” Let the current question resolve itself. Ask the panelists if they have any closing comments. If the conversation is not over, suggest members move to Spontaneous Programming. If members are rushing the panelists for signing, remind them that the time and place for that is the SignOut on Monday morning.
If the panel is running out of steam, one excellent way to wrap up the discussion is to solicit “what I learned” from audience members. This provides panelists with valuable feedback while reinforcing the points made.
Above all, have fun. It’s a challenging job, but we hope you enjoy yourself while you moderate!
A Sample Housekeeping/Startup Script
Let’s get started!
I’m Sandy Beach, your moderator for today.
Welcome to [read the title and description from the program book — some folks will leave because they’re in the wrong panel].
Housekeeping: If you need to be close to understand the panelists, please come on up and sit in the blue stripe seats.
If you have trouble hearing anyone, please make a “time out” sign.
If anyone is sitting in the fire aisles: “Please don’t stop in the blue stripe fire aisles — there are seats and wall space (point to where appropriate).
Here’s the schedule for today:
We’ll be [program format] for minutes, until 00:00 (give clock time as well as duration).
Then we’ll open it up for discussion for 00 minutes, until 00:00.
I will be taking your questions, [briefly mention who you’re privileging; explain how members join the question/comment queue].
We’ll wrap things up in around 70 minutes, at 00:00
Now it’s time to introduce the panel and get rolling!
Introduce each participant and read their bio from your Pocket Program Book. If you don’t know how to say their names, ask each in turn: “Tell us who you are.” and “What intrigued you about this topic?” (Beware: some chatty panelists can take this conversational ball and run 20 minutes with it. If they go beyond 2 minutes, break in “We have plenty of time to explore this in detail. For now, I’d like to get back to introductions (or, if those are done) the first question.”) One way to kick the panel off: state the strong/extreme formulation of the basic question, and then make it clear that, since we all know the answer is somewhere in the middle, all of us are in search of those nuances.
Deadline to complete panel interest survey: March 10
Deadline to accept/decline panel assignments: April 8
WisCon is famous for panel programming that’s full of great conversation, that covers a spectrum including the hilarious and the intensely political — far more than you’ll be able to fit in during one weekend (sorry!). Our panels celebrate our Guests of Honor, delve into discussions of gender, race, disability, and class, and explore every aspect of science fiction from current books and film to transformative works to fandom itself.
We are committed to being flexible and accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that there may be fewer panels than is usual for this upcoming 2022 con, though still a multitrack schedule of the kind familiar from WisCons past. We are also planning online panels, and organizing many ways that WisCon will be just as fun, if not as overwhelmingly scheduled, this year.
Who’s on our panels? You are — the members of the convention, including professional authors, detail-loving academics, and attentive fans.
WisCon programming is developed in stages, all heavily influenced by our participants and attendees.
Idea Collection: We collect ideas throughout the year and close idea submission in mid-January. We receive many hundreds of ideas, so we’re forced to cut, combine, or postpone some because we simply don’t have the space to run them all.
Participant Signup: In February we open up the list of potential panels as a survey so members can let us know their interest in ideas and so they can volunteer to be panelists or moderators.
Scheduling and Program Assignments: Using the participant sign-up information, we determine which items will be scheduled, who will be assigned to them and when, and in what room they will happen. Participants receive an email confirming the details of their assignments A first cut at the schedule generally goes out to program participants in early April.
Program Assignments: By late April we’re able to publicly reveal the full program schedule. Minor adjustments will continue to be made even into the convention itself (e.g., a panelist may need to leave a panel), but the schedule we reveal in late April is 99% final!
How Long Do These Programs Last?
The standard program time slot is one hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes), followed by a 15-minute break until the next program. No one is going to actually kick anyone out of a program room during the 15-minute break, but remember that break is your chance to use the restroom or run up to the Con Suite! Continuing our tradition of supporting our convention attendees’ need to eat meals without missing programming, lunch and dinner breaks are scheduled at 11:30am-1pm and 5:30-7pm.
tl;dr: What can I do to improve WisCon programming?
If you have a panel idea anytime between May and January, tell us! (If it’s between January and May, write it down and tell us in May.)
If you like copyediting and fixing words, volunteer to be a program wrangler! The work gets done in January/February, but you can add yourself to the team any time of year.
If you want to be on panels, make sure your wiscon.info bio is up to date and accurate, and reply to the big Programming Interest survey when we send it out! Please use the “why you’re interested in being on this panel” field and the “enthusiastic/interested/willing” radio buttons.
If you attend the con, note down one or two “this was good/this was bad” comments about panels you attend. Tweet them, using the panel’s hashtag, or share them through the post-con survey or via email directly to email@example.com
How are panels born?
There are nine key steps along the way from spark to full fruition, many of them involving input from the wider WisCon community or from interested volunteers.
Everything starts when a member of the WisCon community has a spark of an idea. It might be during a panel at the con itself (“Hey, they don’t have time to get to this right now, but if you went down this tangent, it’d be a neat panel!”), out on a dinner run, just after the con when talking to friends, or at any time between June and January, but there we are: an idea.
Anyone with an idea can go to the WisCon Idea page and fill out the form between Opening Ceremonies of the convention and the following January. At this stage, it may be a fully-formed and eloquent panel description, or it might just be a title and some bullet points, but all ideas are welcome. Even duplicate submissions are no trouble: far better to accidentally input something three times over the course of the year than forget to put it in even once.
3) Basic vetting
Program staff do a quick pass through the submissions when the Idea page suggestion box closes in January, culling the obvious robot-generated spam and any simple duplicates.
Our talented and valiant staff of program volunteers dig into the submissions, making them better in every possible way. This is when we do everything from fixing typos to putting things in the format that the Publications department needs to deep reconfigurations of panels. We turn bare sketches into the sort of rich and chewy morsels discerning attendees are used to from WisCon programming. You can volunteer to wrangle: you just need some availability in January/February and access to email and a web browser. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be put on the list for next year.
5) The Big Survey – the Programming Interest form
Once the panels all look as good as we can possibly make them, we run them up the flagpole for the entire WisCon community to look over. This is the Big Survey – the Programming Interest form – upon which everything else depends! A link goes out by email, or you can get to it by logging into your account.wiscon.net account. On that page is a long list of every panel we’re considering putting on this year, and you are invited to tell us if you’re excited to attend it in the audience, if you want to be on it, if you want to moderate it, and so on. If you volunteer to work the panel, please DO use the field provided to tell us what special expertise or angle you bring, and make sure your program-book bio (on your main account.wiscon.net account) isn’t blank. Both those things will make our jobs in the next step much easier.
The Big Survey is the single largest factor deciding which panels will or will not run in a given year, so it’s important that as many WisCon-goers as possible take a look and give us their honest opinions. It’s spatially and temporally impossible to run all the panels suggested in a given year — not even all the amazing ones! — so prioritization has to happen, and the Big Survey pulls input from as much of the WisCon community as we can manage.
The survey closes in early spring (Madison time), and the most complex stage of making programming happen begins: putting panelists and moderators on panels. A crack team of skilled and doughty volunteers gather via video chat to confer and share expertise and workload as we do our best to get not only the best available slate onto each and every panel, but also to put each volunteering panelist onto the panels they are most excited to do. Very nearly everyone who volunteers is empaneled for at least one item, so don’t be shy: volunteer! The “why you’re interested in being on this panel” fill-in field from the survey is key here, as it helps us balance expertise and lived experience, and make sure the entire panel isn’t full of people with only one slant on the question.
7) Pre-Con discussion
When the preliminary schedule is finalized, moderators and panelists are sent their assignments. Conversation (sometimes very extensive) occurs via email among each panel’s participants pre-con, guided by the moderator, to help get everyone prepared and excited about what will be discussed at the convention. Sometimes panels decide they need handouts or bibliographies; moderators can coordinate with program and publications staff to get what they need lined up and ready in time. We do our best to give the panelists a month to prep, depending on deadlines, though with late cancellations and unavoidable rearrangement of schedule it’s not always available.
8) Last-minute staffing
Life happens: sometimes people who were planning to come just can’t, or things need to be rearranged. Sometimes one panel just didn’t get four awesome panelists volunteering for it on the Big Survey. Never fear! Even if you only know you’re coming to the con at the last minute, you can be on programming. In the weeks leading up to the convention, the Panels Needing Panelists page goes live, and you can volunteer to be parachuted onto a panel in desperate need of your experience. The program staff are always grateful that people volunteer last-minute, because it helps us patch up holes and make things the best they can possibly be.
Where the magic really happens: live, at the con, in front of your very eyes. Some panels use A/V equipment or other visual aids; some have handouts and flyers; some have ground-rules for the discussion written on big signs posted up front. Every panel is different, depending upon the needs of the moderator and panelists, and it’s up to program staff to support those needs.
Lather, rinse, repeat
Everything starts when a member of the WisCon community has a spark of an idea. Say you’re at WisCon and you’re struck with an idea for a panel for next year’s convention…
Looks like our website got so excited by all the amazing panel suggestions you’ve been submitting that it had an attack of the vapors and passed out on the fainting couch. If you haven’t had a chance to submit your suggestion yet, jot it down somewhere so you don’t lose your inspiration! We’ll let you know when the website has returned to itself and is ready to go again.
That’s right, you can sign up now! Just head to this page on our website. If you have trouble with the link, try logging in at account.wiscon.net first. Even if you don’t want to be a panelist, you can still express your interest in panels. This helps us to decide which panels to keep. (Sadly, we do not have room for them all.)