Saturday, May 21, 2011

Holding Forth on Nothing: Giving "Good Panel" at Conventions

Just about every writer I know goes through moments of excruciating self-doubt. When these moments give rise to thoughts along the lines of, "I have no idea how to write. Up until now, it's all been smoke and mirrors and luck, but now that's gone and everyone will find out I've been faking it," that's called The Imposter Syndrome. I've run across it in public appearances as well.

Every time I fill out a programming questionnaire for a convention, I experience a moment of panic. I look at the writing/genre/literary topics and think, "I don't know a thing about any of this." My mind goes totally blank. What would I have to contribute? It's usually fairly easy to talk myself through that moment, to reassure myself that I do, indeed know a thing or two about writing and editing, creating characters and pitching books. Thanks to Book View Cafe, I even know a thing or two about publishing ebooks.

Then I look at the science panels. "I really don't know a thing! And what I do know, I've remembered wrong." Which is ridiculous because although I may not be current on all the cutting-edge discoveries in every single field, I do have a solid background in the biological sciences and medicine. This feeling of incompetence is not rational. It's based on the expectation that I should be an expert on everything. As soon as I demand that of myself, I throw away my strengths and depend on my weaknesses.

I forget that the purpose of a panel is not a series of pedantic lectures. The best panels, in my experience, are conversations. It's as valuable to ask the questions as it is to have the answers. I may know a lot, but I also know how much I don't know, and that -- I believe -- makes me a more interesting panelist.

Another characteristic of good panelists is the ability to listen to one another. Chances are, the other panelists are as nervous as I am, and one of the best ways to get ideas flowing is to nod encouragingly and ask follow-up questions. Instead of a line of people (barely seen behind the Wall of Books) delivering serial orations, there's a mini-community, tossing ideas back and forth, appreciating one another's contributions, inviting the audience to participate in brain-storming. None of this requires encyclopedic expertise. All of it requires social and emotional literacy. I think of it as collaborative rather than competitive participation.

Once I've distracted myself from my own self-doubt and started listening to the other panelists, I often find I know a whole lot more than I thought on just about any subject. I also find that my own knowledge become secondary to my ability as a moderator. Interestingly, I never suffer the Imposter Syndrome when it comes to gently guiding a panel through the conversation -- I know it will all come out splendidly. And it does.


  1. I read The Introvert Advantage recently, and it suggests that introverts have impostor syndrome a lot. We never feel like we know enough to start talking about it like an expert. It's why so many writers have difficulty promoting their work.

  2. @Katharine -- hey, we should all promote each other's books, then! Oh wait, we already do that -- it's called Book View Cafe!