This year at Comicpalooza I didn't get to attend many panels, and none of the big celebrity ones as my journalism skills were required elsewhere at the convention. It's OK, though because I got a play by play from fellow geeks and reporters, and I've got to tell you Houston some of you really need a crash course on how to behave at these things. It seems more than a couple of them were disasters that could have been avoided if the people attending them have given a little thought to some of the things that make panels great.
So, in the name of improving the next go-round I've come up with a handy list of Dos and Don'ts that I hope will insure our celebrity guests next year aren't going to spend their time on stage wishing it would be done as quickly as possible.
Do: Ask questions that will give a guest a chance to tell a good story, preferably one that they haven't told a thousand times. When people asked me if I was going to put in to interview Stan Lee I told them no because I literally couldn't think of a single question I could ask him that he hasn't been asked a million times. Would it be an honor to meet him? Of course, but they have an autograph line for that. Likewise, give some thought into your question before you raise your hand, and ask yourself "Will the answer to this question entertain the audience and make the guest happy?"
Don't: Ask a question just to be asking a question. It's perfectly acceptable to just sit and listen to the speaker speak without demanding you be given a moment with a microphone. That need for attention is the sort of self-centered idiocy that made someone ask Billy Dee Williams what it was like to be killed by the Predator (That was Carl Weathers). Remember, the goal of the panel is to have a fun and illuminating time. It's about the guest and the audience as a whole, not just you.
Do: Pay attention to how the guest reacts to certain questions. If talking about a certain former boss or coworker seems to make them uncomfortable for instance, steer away from that topic. We are not here to grill someone looking for the deep truth of a matter. There are professional journalists that do that sort of thing, and you're not likely to get even an actor to just confess something he really doesn't like to talk about in front of a crowd. Instead, ask something light-hearted.
Don't: Ask to come up and hug, kiss, sing with, dance, or otherwise interact with the guest on stage. Again, there are autograph lines for that sort of thing, and you'll find most celebrities extremely accommodating. Hell, if you visit the autograph tables late on the last day most guests will talk your ear off out of boredom and a desire for company. Asking for a special moment in a panel just takes out a significant portion of everyone's limited time. As John Barrowman said when he was here, "I can't give everyone in the room a hug."
Do: Keep your questions focused and concise. If it takes you three sentences to get to the point of your question it's probably not a very good one. Some great questions do require a bit of set up, true, but most of the time long questions are just the result of unprepared rambling. Keep in mind time is short and that for the most part these events are focused on professional entertainers who have no problem holding a room in thrall. Let them have the time they need to do that.
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Don't: Talk while the guest is talking. Seriously, this shouldn't even have to be said. You're not supposed to talk when you see Patrick Stewart on screen at the movies let alone when he's in the freakin' room in front of you addressing an audience. This goes double for staff and volunteers as well. An event staff shirt does not mean the rules no longer apply to you.
Do: Ask the guest about projects, hobbies, and things not necessarily related to the geek culture work they are most famous for. Last year Frazer Hines had great stories from his time on Doctor Who almost 50 years ago, and he clearly enjoyed telling those stories to an audience, but he's also a working actor who still accepts parts to this day. Help refresh the palate of the panel by asking the guest about something other than the thing that what he or she is most known for. You'd be surprised the sort of stories you'll get that way.
Don't: Try to profit off the guests. I don't mean don't try to learn something. Some of the best advice I've ever gotten as a writer came from a panel with Gary Russell, and I use it to this day. I mean that this is not the time to try and get your screenplay/novel/independent film moved to the next level on the back of a successful professional. No matter what they're really going to do, they'll accept something you offer in front of a room because not doing that makes them look like a dick. If you're really interested in trying to connect with them on a professional level or get their opinion on something, approach them at the autograph table when it's slow and there's no pressure. Give them a choice in the matter.
Do: Share a good personal story about the way that something the guest did that improved your life or helped you through a rough patch. Keep it as concise as possible, but feel free to share it. Everyone likes hearing how they made a difference in people's lives.
Don't: Ask questions for which there are no answers. Peter Mayhew cancelled because of filming commitments, but if he had been at Comicpalooza I imagine we would have heard a million variations on "What's Episode VII is going to be like?" Either Mayhew doesn't know much himself or he's forbidden to reveal very much, and that makes any question but the first version of "How much can you tell us about the new film?" pointless. Yes, we all want to know the future, but these people's livelihoods often depend on keeping that future a surprise.
A good comic convention panel can be an unforgettable experience, but the key to that experience is for an audience to put as much work into their role in it as the guests do in theirs. See you next year.
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