I usually try to make the titles on these posts clear and explanatory, but this one was evading me. It’s about being an MC or running a panel or doing interstitial banter with someone, especially when everyone is remote. It’s about the kinds of speaking that aren’t speeches.
Your conference organizer may ask if you can help them out by being a master of ceremonies (MC), doing an introduction for other speakers, or running a panel. If the idea of doing this kind of improv gives you cold sweats, it’s ok, you don’t have to do it, but it’s also a great way to contribute and show a little personality you may have scrubbed out of your talk.
One of my favorite memories of a conference MC is when I was giving a talk at DevOpsDays Minneapolis, and my slide deck was… not doing the thing. The AV team was working on it, and I was standing there in front of 800 people, with nothing but a sinking feeling and the cold shakes. Bridget Kromhout, the MC and conference-runner, saw what was happening, and got up on stage with me and and asked me some simple questions that I could answer while the team got me going again. This was such a win for everyone – I got settled back down and stopped panicking, because I wasn’t frozen on stage, and the audience wasn’t bored or restless, and Bridget didn’t have to stand in the wings wishing I would say something.
Bridget Kromhout rocking the mic at DevOpsDays Minneapolis. Photo by Ben Zvan
An MC is not always the same as the conference organizer. In fact, now that we’re all in a virtual meeting for our conferences, it’s really nice to have a pair of people to talk to each other while everyone comes back from getting coffee. You don’t have to know much about anything, you just need to be willing to have a conversation and read the notes you do have.
Here’s what you should expect to do as an MC:
- Show up on time, A/V checks done
- Know what your schedule is, and when you’ll be live
- Know how to switch all your stuff on so you don’t spend time going “can anyone hear me”?
- Introduce speakers — make SURE you check with them that you are pronouncing their name right and getting their pronouns correct
- Thank the speakers, and recap something you liked about their talk
- Remind the audience to do whatever they’re supposed to, like visiting booths or signing up for drawings
- Talk with your co-host, if relevant, about the conference or the content
I know this sounds like very basic stuff, but I promise you that if you don’t write down the things you need to do, you’ll forget at least some of it. My usual failing is entirely forgetting to do the call-to-action at the end.
Are you an organizer trying to get one or more MC’s wrangled? Here are some things that have made it easier from my end:
- Pre-conference tech-check, INCLUDING switching from a recording to live. I think there’s a thing where one of the common tools is not doing that well
- Exact time schedules, including how long each break is and when it ends. If I only have 90 seconds in one slot, it’ll be good to know that
- Prepped questions for the MC in case there is dead air – usually something light about the conference or their hobbies
- Clear indications for when someone will be done with their shift
- A sincere thank you. MCing is not the same kind of work as speaking, but it is work
Running a panel is hard. I’m serious. And it’s even harder online, where you can’t just snatch the mic out of someone’s hand. There are so many failure modes that a panel moderator can wander into, including but not limited to:
- Talking too much
- Not getting even representation from the panelists
- Letting a panelist take over
- Violating community norms
The panelists for a Lead Developer Live session on evaluations
I don’t talk about this often, but running a panel is one of my superpowers — I’ve been doing it for years at the conference of my heart, Wiscon. Wiscon is a feminist science fiction convention over Memorial Day. After years of practice and mindful attention, I’ve gotten to the elite status of “Drop-in moderator”. If a panel doesn’t have a moderator, the organizers may tap me to run it, whether or not I know anything about the subject, because the skillset remains the same. And the panels are 75 minutes long. And the topics are usually pretty intense. Anyway, it makes running an hour-long panel with professionals a lot less intimidating.
Finding a panel moderator is tricky — you want someone who has enough expertise to ask good questions, but not so invested that they will try to insert themselves in the conversation. You want someone who has the natural or institutional authority to shut down a panel member who is cutting others off or being rude. It may be easier to grow your own moderators than try to source them. Online panels have the additional difficulty of missing all the non-verbal queues that tell us when someone wants to interject or disagree.
Here’s what I do as a panel moderator:
- Before the panel
- Write out a list of at least twice as many questions as I think I’ll need
- Look up and pronounce the names of all the panelists
- Do some light biographical research on the panelists, which may inform the questions
- Double-check my A/V, make sure I understand how the audience questions will work, and make sure that my technology isn’t going to trip me up
- Share my questions with the panelists, with the guidance that this is not set in stone, but people answer better when they aren’t surprised
- During the panel
- Make a paper grid of all the panelists, and then draw arrows to indicate which direction I asked a question, and make sure that everyone gets to answer, but not always in the same order
- Keep an eye on the timer, and if any panelist is answering for, say, twice as long as someone else, do what I can to get them to wrap up the answer and move on
- When I ask a question, I say the name of the panelist that I want to answer first. This saves so much collision. “Priyanka, do you feel that PyData will work for large projects?” (answer) “Interesting. Jared, do you agree?”. This feels very stilted if you’re used to free-flowing panel conversations, but they just don’t work well when we’re all distributed
- Interrupt on behalf of panelists who are getting interrupted or run over. “I think Kerry was finishing her thought.”
- Take notes on follow-up questions that may be more interesting than the ones you wrote and ask them instead
- Be sure to let panelists know when time is winding down, and give them a chance to do a final free-form statement
- After the panel
- Check in to make sure everyone feels like they were fairly represented
- Especially check that there’s nothing gross or hostile in the audience questions before you pass them on
- Thank the panelists — it’s scary for some people to go off script
I thought this would be less of an issue in the post-covid world, but it turns out it’s still important. Banner is the casual, interstitial conversation that happens when we’re moving on to the next thing, and it’s worth practicing when you get a chance, because t’s another tool to feel more comfortable using your voice.
I’m doing an interview with Mike Hendrickson
Here are the things I try to remember
- All the rules of improv apply. “Yes, and” and leave people a hook to go off of
- Anyone listening to you is not expecting you to be brilliant, just mildly entertaining/soothing, and also, they are on your side. The audience is almost always on your side
- If you’re going to tease the person you’re talking to, make sure you know them really well
- If you’re going to make jokes, make sure you’re punching up, to people or systems with more power, not less. It’s ok to make fun of the snow clearance in St. Paul, because county is not going to be harmed by that, but it’s not ok to make fun of a junior developer, because they may be hurt or harmed by mockery.
- Remember that you are at work, even if you’re wearing pajama pants while drinking wine out of an opaque water bottle. The code of conduct is in effect and you are a professional. A professional who is probably being recorded.
- It’s ok to have little gaps of dead air — you have a couple seconds to respond, even if we can’t see you. Don’t panic about it.
Now, more than ever, we need to hone some skills that were once something only conference runners had to worry about, but now all of us are helping conferences, participating in meetups online, and we can’t just sit in the back row. People who step up to volunteer for these roles when asked will get a lot of practice at poise, patience, and authority, and that’s never going to end badly.