Where I am, it’s convention season. Anime, video game, comic book, and otherwise. And these conventions have panels. And a lot of conventions have open submissions where anyone can submit an idea for a panel. Which is really awesome. It’s a way for everyone to have a chance to get involved in their local geek community. And you may be like, “hells yeah let’s do it!” And I encourage you to follow through on that impulse! Paneling is fun and the backbone of many conventions and the communities around them. Having been to, sat on, and presented my shair of panels (both good and bad), let’s start you off on the right foot.
Know What the Hell You’re Talking About
You’d think this would be obvious. Based on some panels I’ve been to…not so much.
At a recent convention I was at with friends, we decided to pop into an audio drama/podcast panel to pick up some fun tips and tricks for a project we were thinking about starting. Before the panel started we were talking distribution, and he didn’t know what Stitcher was. Or Buzzsprout. Or Podbean. Or Anchor. Which, if you’re not familiar, are all fairly popular publishing/distribution platforms for that sort of medium. The fact that he didn’t know these betrays his lack of experience and knowledge in a field he’s claiming to be an authority in.
This doesn’t mean you have to know everything about everything. I’m not a super amazing master at visual novel development and voice acting, but I’m more than comfortable bringing lessons on those topics to conventions and kid-oriented teaching spaces. This is because the other part of “knowing what you’re talking about” is your relative knowledge compared to your audience.
If you’re a brand new game dev who barely knows their way around Unity, a gaming showcase like PAX would eat you alive. However, you might be the perfect person to craft a “Game Dev for Idiots” talk for some small local conventions. Play to your strengths, your knowledge base, and your audience.
Decide Your Panel’s Structure…and Run it with Confidence
There isn’t a one-sized fits all solution for paneling. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
If it’s educational/informative, you’re looking at something that’s probably part lecture, part Q and A. I highly recommend a PowerPoint presentation or something people can otherwise interact with. Autobiographical panels from professionals usually have an informal story time quality to them. Fandom based panels often have games, trivia, and prizes and are more of a party atmosphere. And you can mix and match these things for added fun.
Spice up what might be a slightly dry Japanese history panel with readings of waka poetry. Turn a Q and A panel on its head by challenging participants to coin flips and thumb wars. Invite audience participation. The “History of Visual Novels” panel I ran with the Let’s Dub Project ended with volunteers acting out scenes from the weirdest games we could find.
Whatever works to convey the information or have the interactive experience you’re looking for. There are fewer hard and fast rules than you might realize.
Once you figure out that plan of action, go forward with confidence and purpose, even if you have to fake it. You’re presenting yourself as an authority on this subject. People are here to hear and see what you have to say.
Follow basic presentation rules:
- Dress for confidence
- Know your material
- Have a well-constructed Power Point you don’t just read off of
- Practice ahead of time
- Use notes, if you need them
Here’s a good site with good information about presenting as a whole. Put your high school speech class to good use.
Have a Place People Can Find You and Your Information Later
So why are you volunteering for this panel? For fun, right? But maybe you want SOMETHING for your time, and the best you’re usually going to get is exposure (I know, dreadful). In order to reap any benefit from word-of-mouth, you need to have something to attach it to.
Going back briefly to that audio drama dude from before.
When we asked him right at the beginning where we could find his stuff, all he said “I have it on cards at the front.” That is a terrible, terrible, answer. The correct response is “you can follow my Twitter/find my site/find me on YouTube at [easy to understand and remember username or handle]. Would you like a card?” Then bring them one. Some people will come get cards from you, some won’t, but verbalizing your presence, having it in your PowerPoint, and meeting participants halfway makes that information more palatable.
This also sort of means having some kind of place to point people to. I have a special section of my website just for post-panel information that I share, but I make sure I flash my social media, as well. Even just a Twitter can be useful. If you’re doing any kind of content creation, you should have these things, anyway.
Find the Right Convention for You…and Submit!
So you’ve got the structure of your panel ready to go. Neat. Now where do you take it?
Taking our tip about “relative knowledge” into consideration, look up conventions in your area that you feel match the genre of the presentation you’d like to bring. I do anime, multi-genre, and some game ones because that’s the cross-section of where my visual novel panel is most appropriate. It wouldn’t do as well at, say, a comic book convention, so I don’t look at those.
Also look at size, distance and timing. Smaller conventions are more likely to take chances on weirder panel pitches. Know how far you’re willing to travel. I’m super lucky that I’ve got, like, two dozen conventions within three hours. By that same token, three hours is as far as I’m willing to drive because I know it’s a feasible (if long) one day trip. You, also, don’t want to be that person who has to cancel at the last minute. Many conventions will even ban you from submitting a panel idea the next year if you cancel inside a certain time frame. Keep yourself on schedule.
Then all you have left is the panel pitch…which is huge so I really shouldn’t have prefaced with “all you have left,” but you know…
Think of this as your elevator pitch (which is a concept that you could write a book on). You’re trying to grab someone’s attention and convince them to come to your panel. If you want some good ideas, go scanning the schedules of conventions that have them available online. It might take some tweaking and asking friends for their input, but it’ll be the thing that convinces conventions that you’re worth giving a space to.
Now be free. Take your weird and wacky ideas and share them with your fellow sweaty nerds, making the whole community that much better for it.