I've been to a lot of conventions, and I've been on a lot of panels. I've seen writers excel at their panel gigs, and I've seen writers fail miserably.
A panel is a valuable opportunity to shine. Giving good panel will help fans remember you and your brand, which will lead to selling books.
Barry Eisler has some guidelines for moderating panels, and I agree with his points. Many of these apply to being a panelist as well, but not all of them.
Here then is a Panelist's manifesto.
1. Be able to describe your book or series in 20 seconds or less. Whatever topic your panel is about, the ultimate reason you're at this conference is to self-promote. This is your chance to pitch the book to potential readers. Here's my pitch:
"My name is JA Konrath, and I write the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series. The books are scary, like James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, but funny like Evanovich and Dave Barry."
That's all you need. More than that, you'll lose your audience.
2. Once you've pitched your book, stop pitching your book. After you do your 20 second sound byte, stop trying to sell. Your job is to be entertaining. Focus on that. If a question directly pertains to one of your books, that's fine. If you want to make a point using one of your books, that's fine. But less is more. If you ramble too much about your books, the audience will lose interest.
3. Be funny. If you can't be funny, be brief. Studies have shown that if you can't get to the point in ten seconds, you've already lost your audience. (These studies were conducted by me, watching innumerable panels.) The audience is interested in your answers, but only if those answers are entertaining. When you're on a panel, you're on stage. That means you're meant to perform. If you don't do well in front of an audience, let brevity be the true essence of wit.
4. About that brevity thing. Sometimes your answers may tend to run long. Try to curtail this. You think you're more interesting than you actually are. There can be anywhere from three to ten other panelists, and they all deserve equal time---don't infringe upon theirs.
5. Speak like a professional. Make sure you're loud enough so everyone can hear you. Avoid speech hesitations like um, ah, and uh. Sit up straight. Make eye contact with as many people in the audience as you can. Smile. Laugh. You should only speak if you have something to enhance the conversation. Many writers feel they have to get "their time in." If that time is boring, they're doing more harm than good.
6. Engage the audience. Public speaking isn't a monologue; it's a dialog where half of the conversation (the audience) isn't very vocal. But give and take is happening. You want your audience to be responsive, to show their interest through body language. Do the people look bored? Get them to pay attention. Is someone burning to ask a question? Stop talking and let them ask it. Pay attention to their reactions and responses. Your responses won't be remembered, but your enthusiasm will be. Be confidant, not cocky. Before a panel, I try to shake the hand of everyone in the audience, and hand out a signed coaster. This gets them on my side before I say word one.
7. Look professional. Dress for success. Appearance means a lot. Business casual or nicer. Pay attention to how you're sitting, and what you're doing, the entire time you're on the panel, even if you're not the one speaking.
8. Know the topic, don't read the topic. You will be asked to appear on panels that have nothing to do with your books. This happens. When it does, you need to prepare beforehand and make sure you have something interesting to say about this topic. But DO NOT READ YOUR ANSWER! It's okay to have notes, but once you start speaking, you must never refer to those notes. Reading is not engaging. Glancing down at a piece of paper is distracting to the audience.
9. Talk when you need to talk, but otherwise wait your turn. When the moderator, a panelist, or an audience member asks you something, you should always respond, but the length of the response should depend on if you truly have something to say about the topic. Just because you have the chance to speak does not mean you should speak. Passing off questions to other people on the panel who might be better suited to answer them is a classy move. Interrupting other panelists constantly with your monologues is bad bad bad.
10. Interrupt when needed. Sometimes a panelist is monopolizing the panel, and the moderator isn't doing anything about it. Sometimes someone says something that screams for a response or a joke. Remember why you're there: to entertain. If you have a joke, say it. If you disagree with someone, start a polite argument then and there. It makes panels more interesting, and more fun. Lee Goldberg is brilliant with one liners, and he always makes the panel fun. David Morrell isn't afraid to disagree with his fellow panelists, and this always makes the discussion more entertaining and exciting.
11. Help the moderator. Sometimes your moderator will suck. If the ship is sinking because the captain is incompetent, do something or you'll go down with the ship. Start asking questions of your fellow panelists, or of the audience. Interrupt the moderator if she's talking too much about herself, reading bios or questions, seems ill-prepared, can't keep the discussion going, or is otherwise crashing and burning. Also, if the moderator doesn't say anything about herself (when I moderate, I rarely even introduce myself) it's a classy move to ask the moderator some occasional questions. If another panelist isn't getting a chance to speak, ask her questions to get her to speak. If another panelist is rambling, stop it somehow.
12. Bring copy of your book with you. Many in the audience won't know you, or your books. Having your book next to you will help them find it when they're back in the dealer room. It's subtle, subconscious brand reinforcement, and it links your face to your cover.
13. Stick around. If you did well, people will approach you after the panel has ended. They'll ask follow-up questions, bring you things to sign, or just want to shake your hand and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Bask in this, and thank them for coming. Also thank the moderator if they did a good job.
14. Get feedback. The best way to know how you did is to watch a videotape of it. You can learn a lot watching yourself. The next best way is to ask a member of the audience whom you trust. Ask how you could improve. Don't settle for less than the truth. We learn from criticism, not praise.
Remember that facts and opinions aren't interesting. Personality, humor, and conflicts are interesting.
You're there to sell, but you shouldn't be selling, you should be entertaining. And if you're entertaining, you'll wind up selling.
I'm planning on sticking this manifesto up on my website, and I'd like to hear some comments/additions/disagreements. Many of you have done panels, and watched panels, both good ones and bad ones. Am I missing anything?