How to Work a Con Panel Like a Superstar
The 2016 Phoenix Comic Con was a blast, although it definitely had its cringeworthy moments. Some authors were so good on their panels I was cruising Amazon for their books from my seat in the audience. Others… Well, it’s probably just as well they didn’t follow tip number one below. Here are eight pro tips to help you leave a lasting, positive impression with your audience—and help you sell your books, of course!
Psst... Who are you again?
1. Bring a name placard and a book stand.
Assume no one in the audience will know you by sight. Plus, some audience members are bound to walk in late or forget your name seconds after you say it. Bring an easy-to-read name placard you can carry from panel to panel, a copy of your latest release, and a book stand to display it. Michael J. Sullivan had this down to an art form, and now I will never forget his name, face, or next book project: Age of Myth.
2. Keep things positive and professional…
The false intimacy of a small room filled with people enraptured with everything you’re saying can tempt you to let your hair down. But before you say something that will bite you on the butt (or your Twitter feed) later, remember why you’re there: to network, to sell your brand, and to share your love of [insert con topic]. Save the juicy tidbits for after-panel cocktails where you can test the waters before opening the floodgates.
3. …but if you have to go negative, end positive.
Sometimes going negative about someone else serves a purpose, like sharing a bad experience you want your audience to learn from. If you do go negative, though, don’t rant—be succinct, keep the hyperbole in check, and turn the tale into a teachable moment. Case in point: one panelist, an editor, complained bitterly about someone anonymously leaving a manuscript and business card at the editor’s booth. Despite five minutes spent shaming this poor author (who was probably in the audience at the time) for their unprofessional behavior, the editor in question never explained why this behavior was so awful. Insulting someone in your audience, even anonymously, is a dick move. Doing it for five minutes without even explaining what the underlying problem is? That will make you look unprofessional—not to mention arrogant and insensitive.
4. Take a picnic—low blood sugar is the enemy!
Some panel members I saw were really cranky, especially in the afternoon. I just wanted to give them a cookie (and maybe some aspirin). If you know you’ll be at a con all day, don’t count on grabbing food on the go. Bring your favorite portable and caffeinated nom-noms so you don’t accidentally end up chewing on fans instead.
5. Bring books and giveaways.
Who doesn’t like free stuff? If you’re at a reader-oriented con, these people paid actual money and took time off of work to be there. These are the kinds of enthusiastic fans most likely to review your book on Amazon and tell all their friends about it. And that’s not even counting the book-bloggers in the audience. Give them copies of your latest release! Don’t want to haul a back-breaking load of books around? Give out ebook redemption codes instead! (Thank you Sarah Remy!) But take note—if you’re going to a writer- or industry-oriented con, don’t give out your book. These people already have books coming out their ears. Instead, think cheap, portable, and usable: bookmarks, stickers, magnets, etc.
6. Shout out favorite books and authors.
Panelists who answer every question with “Well, in my book…” will lose their audience’s interest fast. While it’s true that part of the reason you should attend cons is to network and sell your brand, that’s not why fans are there. They’re there because they genuinely love [insert con topic], and they can sniff out a faker a mile away. Greg van Eekhout was a total gentleman when he hat-tipped China Miéville for awesome worldbuilding. Follow Mr. van Eekhout’s example and give shout-outs where they’re due to other books by other authors. Then, sit back and bask in the good karma—because now California Bones is on my to-read list.
7. Find a babysitter!
I can’t emphasize this one enough, especially for cons or con panels with any sort of adult-themed topics. I knew things were in trouble when I walked into a PNR panel with children under the age of ten in the audience. Discovering that they were all spawn of the panelists made me sympathetic, but still disturbed. And no one was surprised when they started acting out—the poor dears were bored s***less. If you can’t find/afford a babysitter, consider swapping duties with other authors in the same boat who might be scheduled for a break while you’re onstage.
8. Tell the audience where to find you after the panel.
You’re a writer. You know the importance of a good beginning, middle, and end. Panels are the same! You’ve introduced yourself while plugging your next book, and you’ve answered questions with positive professionalism and genuine interest. Now what? Tell the audience how they can continue the conversation! If it’s the middle of a con, tell them where you’ll be going next (another panel, the exhibitor hall, a signing, etc.). If it’s the end of a con, plug your website and/or tell them your next destination, if you have a future appearance scheduled.
Have any of your own con stories to share? Praiseworthy or cringeworthy, chime in below!