Tips for Mods

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:

WisCon Moderator Training Outline (PDF)

WisCon Moderator Training (PowerPoint)

Before the con

Guiding panel development

Read the panel description a few times. (If you’re fuzzy on what’s intended, please contact 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?

Physical placement

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.