Thursday, April 07, 2011

Expectations - Great or Not?

I think it's part of human nature to want to know what's going to happen, or to go into just about any situation with a set of expectations based on either past experience, word of mouth, or our own (perhaps flawed) logic.

When the phone rings, do you wonder who it might be. (And do you wonder what people did before caller ID?)

Do you go to a movie without some idea of what you're going to be seeing? Do you like to read the reviews first? Same goes for books. Or restaurants.

How many times have you actually done something totally cold?

Now, if something doesn't match one's expectations, does that make it bad? No, of course not.

So, when I went to my first Left Coast Crime conference, I automatically expected it to be very much like SleuthFest, the only other mystery conference I'd attended. It wasn't. While there were many areas where they were different, I'll pick out only one here--the overall format, which was similar in both.

Like SleuthFest, Left Coast Crime used the panel model. Author attendees were assigned to be part of panels based on their requests for general topics as well as what the panel coordinator thought would be a good fit. Panels were assigned moderators.

Now, here, I can only compare what I know about moderator duties from SleuthFest, where we were give four pages of detailed instructions. Based on what I saw at LCC, either there were very sketchy instructions, or they were ignored by many moderators. In some cases, moderators actually moderated. In others, they inserted themselves into the panel. In some cases, they obviously did their homework and directed the panelists in a discussion of the topic. In others, they hit the panelists with unexpected questions, causing "dead air" while they searched for a coherent answer.

Sometimes, the moderators asked questions that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic. Which is another one of those "expectation" issues.

Both SleuthFest and LCC have clever, catchy titles for their panels. However, they don't elaborate, and the poor attendee is left going into a room with one set of expectations, only to find they're totally wrong.

Sometimes the panel title was straightforward, but the panelists and/or moderator didn't match content to title. I mentioned one title, "Breaking Barricades and Opening Doors." At a mystery conference, my expectation was along the lines of SWAT, not genre-crossing, which is what the panelists discussed.

How about "Series vs Standalones." Expectation: discussions of the differences in writing a series vs writing a stand alone. Trouble was, nobody on the panel wrote stand alones. And the moderator's questions had nothing to do with writing series in general, but only asked the panelists to talk about their specific books. Great for marketing, perhaps, but it didn't do anything to help me, because dealing with series and stand alone books is a dilemma I'm constantly facing.

I missed what I heard was an excellent panel, because the title, "You Can't Run in High Heels" didn't sound like what the panel was actually about—defensive techniques for women.

One other difference in the panels--at SleuthFest, moderators took care of the little things, like setting out the name cards and timekeeping. Here, each panel had a volunteer to take care of that. (Of course, if the moderator is too busy reading her notes to look at the volunteer, the timekeeping thing becomes a challenge!)

Did any of this mean the panels, or the conference itself wasn't a good one? No. It just meant that 1) I hope next time, the organizers learn how important putting a few lines of description in the program can be, and 2) they have better control over the moderators so that those in the audience get a constant level of quality across the board.

It also means that should I go again, I'll know more of what to expect, which should add to the experience.

image from MSPmentor blog.


Regina Richards said...

I agree. I like to have a clue what I'm getting into most of the time. I think it not only lets me make better decisions about which panels to attend, but it also lets me go in with a mindset to participate fully, even if participating consists of merely listening.

Margaret Fieland said...

Sounds as if Left Coast Crime could use some organizational help.

Terry Odell said...

Regina - I don't know why the program folks don't add another sentence of explanation - perhaps because they don't really know. I think moderators are just given the title and told to go wherever they like with it.

Margaret - these conferences are all run by volunteers, and I commend them for what I know from experience is a tremendous amount of work. I hope the committee for the next one takes what they saw here and improves upon it.

And, understand this was my first LCC, so from the organizers' viewpoint, it may have been exactly what it was supposed to be.

Deni Dietz said...

I've been attending cons, including LCC, since 1994 and have moderated many, many panels. The first rule of thumb is to focus on the panelists. A moderator is the *chairman* of a discussion group, not the star player. Sure, the mod can introduce herself/himself, even - briefly - answer a question, but that's it.

The VOLUNTEER organizer of the Santa Fe panels didn't make that clear (or was ignored). I was on 2 panels. The mod for my humor (repeat, *humor*) panel READ her questions like a dirge and usually answered them first. She gave her opinion ("If a book isn't funny, I won't finish it") then asked for our feedback. It was a disaster. My "publishing today and tomorrow" mod was exceptional; making sure every panelist gave input, tactfully cutting off those who spoke too much (I can be guilty of that *grin*), and I was sorry when the panel ended. I'm fairly certain the audience felt the same way.

Terry Odell said...

Deni - thanks for your input. I was one who enjoyed the publishing panel. And I attended another very much like what you've described for the humor panel.

It's a tough call, since everyone's a volunteer. But it can be done. I got mixed responses when I asked about what a moderator should or shouldn't do, so apparently guidelines weren't clear.

One thing that surprised me: No evaluation forms. The only conference I've ever been to that didn't have them (and didn't nag you to fill them out every time you turned around!)

Maryannwrites said...

It is frustrating when a moderator does not operate the way one should. Even if there are no written instructions, those chosen to moderate a panel have probably been at several cons and should know the parameters. I have been on a number of panels and moderated a few, and the panel is of the greatest benefit to the audience when everyone stays on task and doesn't use the panel as their one-person sles pitch.

L.J. Sellers said...

I had the same experience in the Series Vs. Standalone panel. I expected a thoughtful discussion about how/why writers make those decisions and was disappointed not to get it.

Terry Odell said...

Maryann - I totally agree. It seemed the panels, by focusing on the authors' books, were more geared to selling/marketing/readers rather than craft. But maybe that's the focus of the conference. Had I known, I'd have presented my parts in the panel (which DID stay on task) differently.

LJ - agreed. And I had volunteered to be timekeeper in that one, thinking it would be of interest to me anyway, so I couldn't leave!