Monday, March 21, 2016

Fix Your Con Panels By Using This One Weird Old Trick

Man, you guys. You know that feeling you get when you're so pumped you're actually punch-a-wall angry?

No?

Okay, let me back up.

I rounded up a few members of the DFW Writers Workshop and ran panels with them at All-Con this weekend. This was a good plan for several reasons: it gave us a chance to promote our workshop and conference, gave them a chance to practice public speaking without any one person having to solo in the spotlight, and gave me a chance to spread the joy of con-dom (heh) to writers who hadn't visited a fan convention before. We had a huge range of genres and experience levels represented, and a tremendous variety of interests.

Jennie Komp, for example, was interested in the inflatable T-Rex.
And y'all. Seriously. They KILLED it out there. This crew was just so head-and-shoulders above anything I expected, and honestly, above 80% of the panels I've done with published professionals. They were prepared. They were enthusiastic. They endured heroic commutes and ludicrous parking costs. They sat in on each others' panels, passed the ball to each other and to the audience, and rolled gracefully with every logistical punch the weekend threw at them. In short, they treated the convention experience like the pleasure and the privilege that it is.

And like... I don't need to build them up by tearing other people down, but this is SUCH a change from what I've come to expect from the convention panel format. Patrice Sarath said it better than I could. Short version: if you are LUCKY enough to have even a single person seek you out and sit in a room to hear your opinions on whatever given subject, you owe them your absolute best. Yes, cons can be exhausting. Yes, it's hard when you're sick or haven't had much sleep. But if you aren't going to bring your A-game, do the rest of us a favor and don't show up. Nobody in that audience came to hear about how tired you are, how drunk you got, how you don't know why you're on the panel or how we're lucky you're even talking to us at 9AM on a Sunday. You're (allegedly) a professional. Go hard or get out.

Okay, rant over. But to the con organizers of the world - let me lay something on you.

The DFW workshop crew aren't just magically a superior breed of human (though they are pretty dang fabulous.) They rock because they know how to play as a team. Like, they worked on this project together for literally weeks before the con. They came up with panel topics and descriptions, sorted themselves into teams, collaborated on questions, chose their own moderators... basically, they ran this thing from soup to nuts. More importantly - and here is the key difference, I think - they weren't just in this for themselves. They came to represent the workshop - to ride for the brand, as it were.

While they were at it, they also represented Ripley, Rey, Captain America, and Cosima Niehaus.
And that's what I think we're missing at our conventions. When I go to AggieCon next month, I'll be representing myself. I want people to think I'm cool and buy my books, so I will do my very best. And I happen to be a team player-type, so I will put the interests of the panel/discussion ahead of my own - but you can't count on people to do that. Given the choice between hogging the mic and maybe making a book sale off it, or passing it to the rando next to them and making the discussion more interesting... a whole lot of people are going to go with Option A. So you end up with a panel full of people playing air-time tug-of-war, talking themselves up at the expense of the conversation. It's the tragedy of the nerd-commons.

But if you "subcontract" some of your panels out to other organizations - then the dynamic changes. If everyone on the panel is from the same writers group, the same podcast, the same publisher or anthology or whatever, then suddenly it's in all our best interests to play for the team. We have sharper banter, better chemistry, the warmer atmosphere that comes from already knowing each other - and more importantly, our personal interests now align with the group interests. In improving the discussion, we improve our collective image. And that's good for everyone.

And yes, I will totally take credit for our sweet matching name tents.
I've seen this work well at other cons already. The Gentlemen Nerds put on a great show at ConDFW last month. The Redheads of the Apocalypse always do. And those names - those "brands" - are becoming a recognizable staple of Texas con programming: you don't have to know what the panel is about to know what kind of time you're going to have when you get there.

We need to do more of that, y'all. We have tons of terrific authors and artists on the con circuit, and wonderful things can happen when they land on the long side of a table together. But we also have some amazing collectives, too - and if you give them the freedom to choose their own team and run their own show, I promise you will see results.

No, better than promise - I challenge you. Book the DFW Writers Workshop con-squad for your next convention, and we'll put the 'pro' in your programming.

P.S.: All-Con was AMAZING. DFWcon will be too! For a good time, use discount code ALLCON2016

#sfwapro

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