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June 01, 2005

Not a Question, More of a Comment: Killing the "Naqmoac"

In his wrap-up of Wiscon, writer Barth Anderson said some nice things about my panel moderating skills:

I also want to take a moment to commend John "The Black Hand" Scalzi. Good panel-moderating requires a whip, and Scalzi wields hot leather from the word go. As a result, the "First-time Novelists" panel was packed with info, I thought, with very little rambling, whining - and NO chance of hijacking. My advice to Wiscon - require all moderators to take a Scalzi-run boot camp on moderating panels.

(For those of you lost at sea here: at science fiction and other writing conventions, four or five writers will sit on a panel and discuss a particular subject and take questions from the audience as well. Usually one of the panelists acts as a moderator, asking questions of other panelists, choosing which audience members get to ask a question and making sure things keep moving.)

While Barth rather modestly neglects to mention that the primary reason the panel was so good was because of the overall excellent quality of the panel participants (which aside from Barth also included Kelly Link and Virginia G. McMorrow), I will say that I agree that good moderating is key to most successful panels that I've seen, and that I try to be a good moderator. That means paying attention to what your fellow panelist are saying so that followup questions flow naturally, making sure each panelist gets enough microphone time and doing a fair bit of audience management. In my experience, science fiction convention panel audiences want to be actively engaged in the panel, which is good, but they sometimes also forget to do the simple things, like raise their hand for questions. Which is bad. This is why I tend to remind panel audiences at the outset that they need to raise their hands for questions, otherwise they risk my wrath.

After Wiscon (but not directly because of Wiscon, because I've been thinking about this for a while), I think I'm going to add another panel audience instruction to my opening statements, which is that any attempt to break out the "Not a question, more of a comment" strategy is going to get squashed under my moderating heel like a bug.

For those of you unawares of this, the "Not a question, more of a comment" gambit (hereafter acronymed to "naqmoac" -- pronounced as "nackmoack") is when an audience member temporarily and unilaterally elevates him or herself to panelist status and proceeds to blatherate at length on a subject that's usually only nominally related to the subject matter at hand. The panel momentum comes to a standstill as the usurping audience member drones on and once they finally finish, there's no question at the end of it, so the panelists are left there going "uh... okay," the other audience members wonder why they had to spend five minutes of a 50-minute panel listening to this jackass, and the moderator has to cold start the panel. Have a couple of these "naqmoac attacks" in a panel, and the panel can sink without a trace. As Barth notes, it's a hijacking, and that shouldn't be tolerated.

So: in the future when I moderate I will tell all my panel audiences that, as in Jeopardy, comments must be phrased in the form of a question, and that any attempts to get around this will cause me to get immoderate in my moderation. If one's comment cannot be phrased as a question -- and a good, meaty and succinct question at that -- then one might consider holding it until the end and then chatting with the panelist about it afterward. Also, if one actually starts a naqmoac with the phrase "Not a question...," on a panel I moderate, with God as my witness I will interrupt and say to rephrase as a question instantly or sit down and let someone who knows how to follow the rules ask a question.

It's not just about me being a strutting martinet, mind you. I sincerely believe that naqmoac attacks are usually unfair to everybody else at the panel: It deprives the panelists of time to make their points and to engage audience members who want to ask them questions, and it deprives audience members of their access to panelists and of the ability to follow up on the comment, since if the audience is just going to talk amongst itself, one has to wonder why there's a panel up there at all and (also) why the Hell the moderator isn't doing his or her job. Which is the perfect point to note that it's unfair to the moderator too, because it leaves the moderator to clean up someone else's mess. I concede that on a rare occasion a naqmoac might be useful, but I have to say having been at a fair number of panels now, both as panelist and as audience member, the proportion of useful naqmoacs is not nearly high enough to tolerate them in a general sense.

Anyway, that's my plan: Death to the Naqmoac. With luck and moderating skill we can purge it from the panel dynamic and usher in a new utopian age for all humanity, or at least the portion of it that goes to science fiction writing panels. And that'll be enough for me. For now, anyway.

Posted by john at June 1, 2005 06:31 PM

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Ted Lemon | June 1, 2005 07:56 PM

Hear, hear. There's nothing worse than listening to somebody expound at length about some boring topic about which they have an uninformed opinion when you came to hear your favorite , whether is a writer, a computer geek, or whatever. Go, martinets, go!

David Moles | June 1, 2005 08:37 PM

The nice thing about the Jeopardy rule is that makes it easy to separate out the people who just want to pretend they're on the panel. Everyone else can easily take their comment and prepend "What do the panelists think about....?"

(P.S. Nice to meet you in the flesh, however briefly. Hope to see more of you at Glasgow.)

Mris | June 1, 2005 08:51 PM

Secret stealth NOQMOAC words: "Wouldn't you agree that...?"

Hannah Wolf Bowen | June 1, 2005 08:56 PM

Down with "Not a question...!"

I was at that first-time novelists panel (first panel of the con for me, and only one that I stayed for the length of) and absolutely appreciated your squishing of those few early attempts to derail things. Well done, and thanks!

Jette | June 1, 2005 09:11 PM

John, can we engage you for film screenings that are followed by a Q&A, to do the same kind of moderation? Those five-minute-long comments drive me up the wall. I wonder if I shouldn't send a link to this entry to the SXSW film fest organizers.

Steve Eley | June 1, 2005 09:27 PM

Exactly. I'm not there to listen to other people in the audience. If other people in the audience have opinions of any importance whatsoever, they can get themselves on the panel next time. It's not exactly a Herculean feat.

John Scalzi | June 1, 2005 09:36 PM


"I wonder if I shouldn't send a link to this entry to the SXSW film fest organizers."

By all means. I'll be happy to start my second career as John Scalzi, Professional Moderator.

David: Yes, indeed, Glasgow! I too regret no real chance for conversation. Hopefully we'll be able to correct that.

Joe Rybicki | June 1, 2005 10:25 PM

One of these days, John, we need to get you to E3 and/or GDC, so you can see how gaming "journalists" uniquely approach the Naqmoac. Here's a teaser: sometimes the panelists are Japanese. And sometimes the Naqmoacquer attempts to present the Naqmoac *in Japanese*. Only they don't really speak it.

"Ano...what was that about my mother?"

Jack Scheer | June 2, 2005 09:12 AM

I think naqmoac has applications far beyond panel moderation at cons. Imagine how much more listenable radio call-in shows would be if listeners actually asked questions of the show's guests instead of calling up with their own agendas, pet peeves, and crackpot theories.

I can't tell you how many times I've been listening to Talk of the Nation or (here in DC) the Kojo Nnamdi Show and been forced to tune elsewhere because some blowhard thinks s/he should have the same amount of airtime as the invited guests.

I sense a grassroots movement forming. Somebody make up t-shirts, pronto!

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | June 2, 2005 10:43 AM

Good moderation is immeasurably valuable. I'm bad at it, and therefore won't accept moderator gigs. I also think all convention panels should have a moderator, and have been known to press this point with convention organizers.

Convention program idea: You and Tom Whitmore, in a dialogue about the art and practice of panel moderation.

That said, I resist the attitude implicit in Steve Eley's remark that he's categorically "not there to listen to other people in the audience. If other people in the audience have opinions of any importance whatsoever, they can get themselves on the panel next time." Because at a lot of convention events, to a non-zero extent, I am there to listen to other people in the audience. That's one of the reasons we call these events "conventions"--we're there to convene, not just to shut up and watch the show.

There are certainly events where I and most others are going to be vastly more interested in the panelists' views, and resentful of audience time-wasting. Knowing the difference is a matter of judgement--and judgement is what good moderating is all about.

Columbine | June 2, 2005 11:05 AM

While I do go to conventions partially to convene, I think there's a place and time for convening, and usually I don't think that a panel discussion is it.

Now, I admit I am oversensitive about this - for example, if I ruled the universe I would probably omit the Q/A portion entirely, which I imagine y'all would consider overkill. Point is, I came to hear the panelists, not the audience.

I am also thinking, Mr. Nielsen Hayden (the formality isn't intended to be cold, I just don't know you well enough to call you Patrick), that you may not be aware of how much the point of view can differ here. To someone like me, you are one of the Insiders. You are a Known Name. You're one of the people whose picture goes up in the side hall where people can see what all those Known Names look like. You have lots of friends in the community and you know who all the regulars are, so when one of those regulars gets up and says some long thing from the audience, to you it's not an unwelcome interruption, it's like hearing from a friend in a big discussion that encompasses not just the panelists but some audience members. Yes?

To me, the panelists are celebrities, and the people seated facing them are the Teeming Masses, and we in the Teeming Masses should behave approximately like an audience at a stage performance.

I am not saying that my point of view is the correct one, the only valid one, or anything like that. Just noting that when I sit down to a panel discussion I may be seeing a very different environment than you do.

Anne KG Murphy | June 2, 2005 11:44 AM

Patrick's comment points to the fact that there's more than one type of panel. Some of them naturally involve greater "audience" participation than others. But even at something like the "Living room" discussion on burnout I attended at Wiscon there's still a very important role for a moderator. A moderator keeps the discussion interesting by keeping it on topic, keeping it moving so you hit whatever subtopics the panel would like to cover, and keeping everyone involved who ought to be involved, sometimes drawing people out who otherwise won't say much.

I don't know if I'm a good moderator. I try to be. I'm not as firm a hand as Scalzi, I'm sure.

I do know it can be hilarious to watch Scalzi sit and stew on a panel that's being poorly moderated by someone else or which lacks a moderator. Once at Penguicon I nearly busted up laughing when he sat there sizing up the two stacks of plastic water cups in front of him until, in a fit of exercising what control he could over the universe, he moved a few cups from one stack to the other so they were even.

Kate Nepveu | June 2, 2005 12:24 PM

To me, the panelists are celebrities, and the people seated facing them are the Teeming Masses, and we in the Teeming Masses should behave approximately like an audience at a stage performance.

What kinds of conventions or panels do you attend? This might be a difference in fandoms.

Steve Eley | June 2, 2005 12:37 PM

Patrick wrote:
That said, I resist the attitude implicit in Steve Eley's remark that he's categorically "not there to listen to other people in the audience. If other people in the audience have opinions of any importance whatsoever, they can get themselves on the panel next time." Because at a lot of convention events, to a non-zero extent, I am there to listen to other people in the audience. That's one of the reasons we call these events "conventions"--we're there to convene, not just to shut up and watch the show.

Of course there are exceptions to everything, and I agree that it's an art. But as John said, the exceptions tend to be rare enough not to invalidate the general rule.

My general rule, once I'd attended enough conventions to feel justified in having one, has been to do my "convening" at events specifically encouraging open discussion, at kaffeeklatsches, and most of all in the bar. I've been going to fewer and fewer panels with each con, and when I do go to one it's either because of someone on the panel or because the topic is one I want to learn more about. When the convention programs start listing "Joe Haldeman will be sitting in the audience," then that might be a factor too. Oddly enough, they don't.

John Scalzi | June 2, 2005 12:44 PM

Anne KG Murphy, bustin' my chops. I prefer to think I was restoring order to the universe by making those cup towers equal. That's my excuse and I'll stand by it, by God.

Anne is right that good moderation is always a good thing no matter what the panel format. Someone's always got to drive the bus and keep in mind that the aim of the panel is to be interesting, engaging and enlightening for the people who have come to see it. Preferably, moderating would be invisible -- you don't notice it when it works because you're concentrating on information in a panel rather than the presentation.

Per PNH and Columbine's comments, I'm somewhere in the middle. I tend to think the focus should be on the panelists, who presumably have an informed perspective on the topic at hand. However, and particularly at SF conventions, audience members are informed and opinionated about the topics, and can ask panelist provocative questions that can enhance the overall value of the discussion. So I think Q&A is integral. That said it's always better when the audience lives up to the "q" portion, rather than giving an "a" to a question nobody actually asked.

Bob | June 2, 2005 02:09 PM

One more rule, please. Anyone who starts a question with, "I'll be brief..." or "I'll get right to the point..." should be asked to sit down immediately. Never in the history of the modern world has anyone who's prefaced a question with those phrases been good to their word.

Jeff Porten | June 2, 2005 07:52 PM

Boy, you people attend way different conferences than I do.

I've been the moderator, and I've been the guy the moderator has to shut down. I've been the long winded guy who debated Laurie Anderson at great length in front of an audience of 2,000, and I've been the guy who demolished a panelist in 30 seconds and sat down again.

All depends on the conference. My attitude is, if I've got something to say, I'm going to say it. If the moderator shuts me up, I'll shut up. But given a weak moderator and a point I think is worthwhile, then I'll take whatever rhetorical tack seems appropriate to making it. Must be doing something right, because the conferences I've been attending recently are invite-only, and I'm not generally on the panels.

Y'all are welcome to memorize my picture and bring the rotten tomatoes.

Lenny Bailes | June 3, 2005 12:38 AM

I'm thinking that the issue of audience members keeping responses relevant and *short* is getting mixed up, in this discussion, with the issue of asking questions instead of making statements.

At Potlatches, we call the traffic controllers for the panels "ringleaders" instead of "moderators." The idea *is* to lend a townhall ambience to the discussions without making them dull.

You can get some idea of how this works by reading through some of the panel notes from old Potlatches. If you look at these, you'll see lots of examples of audience members making short declarative observations that are pertinent, rather than asking questions.

It does takes a responsible, grown up panel audience (not too large), and good moderation/ringleading for this style to work. But it can work to produce positive results.

If *all* s-f con panels were run with your Jeopardy "ask a question" rule for audience participation, I think we'd be losing some interesting, high-quality experiences.

Several Potlatches ago, Cory Doctorow introduced an element of deliberate anarchy as a ringleader into one panel by declaring five minute intervals called "scrums." Anyone could stand up and say anything in response to what had already been said during a *scrum,* provided everyone was willing to subside when Cory called "time." Most of the people who witnessed this actually felt that it worked as an interesting experiment.

John Scalzi | June 3, 2005 01:34 AM

Lenny Bailes:

"If *all* s-f con panels were run with your Jeopardy 'ask a question' rule for audience participation, I think we'd be losing some interesting, high-quality experiences."

Possibly, although my experience with statements as opposed to questions is not as positive as yours apparently is. However, I would never demand any other moderator do as I do (although I might suggest). Every moderator has his or her own style, and I'm content to let them do as they see fit. Which is big of me, I know.

Cory's innovation sounds like a fun one, and as importantly, it's structured, and I think that's key.

Debbie Notkin | June 3, 2005 09:19 AM

Wow! So many assumptions from all over the place. I'm glad to see you say that it's an art, and at the same time it seems that you also feel that there's a set of rules that apply in most situations.

Who's on the panel? What is the topic? Do the people on the panel know more about it than the people in the audience? Do the people on the panel know the same amount about the topic (or have the same amount of quality information/ entertainment to offer) as the average audience member? What's the mood of the room? Is it a transfer of information or a discussion on a general topic? Is there a single "star" on the panel whom most of the audience came to hear? If so, is that "star" extroverted or introverted in this context? Eloquent or stammering? Does the "star" like or dislike the spotlight?

Let's look at WisCon. I moderated two panels. One was on a rather thin subject (Women and the Draft) and the panelists ranged from a West Point graduate and retired career army man with an enormous amount of knowledge and a clear position to a self-described "amateur artist" who gets on panels to espouse the right of the amateurs to have opinions. She was basing her comments almost completely on a handful of military and ex-military people she knows. Should I have "wielded the whip" identically with the two of them? Also there was a fairly new writer of military SF who admittedly had not thought much about women and the draft.

I ran that panel by doing a certain amount of extremely polite "whip-wielding" with my amateur artist panelist, who knows full well that she's inclined to run on, and who _thanked_ me after the panel for how I had worked with her. She required a lot more effort to manage than the audience did, and that effort paid off.

Many of the audience participation remarks could be characterized as NAQMOOAC. Many of the people offering these were from military and/or draft and/or non-U.S.-perspectives and I found their remarks extremely useful. Among other things, they made excellent jumping-off points to go back to the panelists. I find that making room for those comments is one of the things that enriches a panel discussion. Like Patrick and others above, I'm there to convene. This doesn't mean that I have to let a long rambling diatribe from either the podium or the audience go on forever; I'm perfectly capable of saying "thank you so much!" in a pause and going to the next participant or panelist.

The other panel I moderated should not have been a panel at all, in my opinion, and I wish I had figured that out sooner. The topic was "WisCon, Tolerance, and Acceptance of Difference," relating to some issues that arose last year. No one in the room had any more valid or useful experience than anyone else; I was badly hampered by what I felt was my responsibility to keep returning to the panel, rather than just letting the conversation move around the room.

I'd like to sit in on that discussion on moderation that Patrick suggests, with you and Tom Whitmore. (Tom and I taught each other much of what we know about moderating many years ago; I've learned a great deal since, and I'm sure he has as well.) I would start that discussion with my own emphasis being on context, rather than trying to define any set of heuristics (other than respect for panelists and audience members) as generally applicable.

John Scalzi | June 3, 2005 09:43 AM

As I mentioned, different things work for different people, and I don't doubt you do fine in the way you choose to moderate.

Context is important, I'd agree, but panels aren't Calvinball. The large majority orbit the same organizational and procedural strange attractor. I see this as an "80/20" thing: 80 percent of panels are similar enough in content, form and presentation that a general procedure format will work efficiently and help panelists and audience members have an enjoyable and informative panel, and for the other 20 percent, you can wing it.

Hueristics are heuristics because they work (or have worked in the past), and there's nothing wrong with laying them out as a basis to proceed from the beginning, as long as one is smart and flexible enough as a moderator to chuck them if it's apparent they're not appropriate. Personally I find it better to start with certain guidelines that are easy to follow and understand and lead to an efficient and enjoyable exchange of ideas. I also think it's perfectly fine to chuck those ground rules if the nature and progress of the panel require or strongly encourage it.

In this particular case, banning the noqmoac is not a heuristic (like, say, raising one's hand to ask a question), but inasmuch as I've met very few noqmoacs that have been useful, I'm willing to disallow them and see how it works. If it works to my satisfaction (i.e., in my opinion the panelists and and audience benefit from its lack), I'll put it in the toolbox. If it doesn't, then not.

Alan Bostick | June 3, 2005 02:24 PM

So if a panelist should happen to mention Jack Williamson's classic SF novel Slan, would you really smack down an audience member who, after duly raising her hand and waiting her turn to speak, said, "Slan was written by van Vogt," instead of phrasing the correction of fact as a question?

How would you respond to a criticism along the lines of "your style of moderating apears to presume that panelists are descended from the gods and audience members are descended from the apes"?

Claire Light | June 3, 2005 02:26 PM

Although I didn't have the pleasure of being whip-handed by a moderating Scalzi at this year's Wiscon, I *did* get to make very know-it-all comments at a panel upon which he sat. Consider that a caveat.

Wiscon's panel organizing principle seems to be very loose and "democratic", which I like very much. There are some very random panel topics, and some very random panelists. This can make for bad or amateur panels, but it also allows any old slob to get a discussion started on a topic, or in a direction that more professional, highest common denominator organizers might not have thought of. For a convention like Wiscon, maintaining this democratic principle, and encouraging attendees to take the initiative in personalizing the convention, is essential. I loved the range of quirky and idiosyncratic panel topics.

The downside to this type of organizing is of course that you can have panelists who know very little about a topic and are there simply because they're interested in it. In this case, restricting commentary to panelists makes the panel excruciatingly boring, especially for those audience members who are knowledgeable about the subject and are there to learn things they don't already know, or to hear debates on controversies they find interesting.

I have two suggestions: 1) that the person organizing the panel should moderate it -- so that his/her intentions in organizing the panel are honored. If s/he wanted an expert panel, then the panel should be moderated so as to exclude random audience hard-blowing. If s/he wanted an open discussion, s/he can remove the table, set up the chairs in a circle, and moderate an open discussion. 2) that panels be categorized as "expert panels", "debate panels" and "open discussions" and guidelines be offered for differing organizing and moderating principles for each of these. This latter option should please Scalzi, whom I nominate as Wiscon's first Panel Commissioner.

John Scalzi | June 3, 2005 03:33 PM

Alan Bostick:

"So if a panelist should happen to mention Jack Williamson's classic SF novel Slan, would you really smack down an audience member who, after duly raising her hand and waiting her turn to speak, said, 'Slan was written by van Vogt,' instead of phrasing the correction of fact as a question?"

Well, first, the idea that such a comment would not be immediately corrected by some other panel member (particularly at Wiscon, which has a significant academic component) seems fairly remote, so that's probably not a good example.

Second: Sure, because unless the comment that Slan was written by Williamson was somehow germane to the conversation at hand, all the audience member is doing is holding up proceedings to offer a piddly correction to an offhand remark. And if the comment that Slan was written by Williamson is somehow germane to the panel discussion (say, the panelist was making a point about how Slan has themes carried in Williamson's other work), then a question would be more relevant, not less, i.e., "How would your analysis of Slan having themes carried forth in Williamson's other work change if, in fact, Slan were written by van Vogt, as it was?"

"How would you respond to a criticism along the lines of 'your style of moderating apears to presume that panelists are descended from the gods and audience members are descended from the apes'?"

I would probably roll my eyes. If panelists are descended from gods, it was a long fall with a hard ending. And anyway, I sit in the audience of panels more often than I participate or moderate, so I'm more ape than god (this should be obvious). As an audience member I dislike noqmoacs equally as when I'm a panelist or moderator.

I would say that my style of moderating presumes that panelists are on the panel for a reason and that they have insight to impart on a topic, and that I as a moderator want to make sure that they are able to do so -- and to engage the audience in a way that's constructive to both parties and vice versa.

I would also note that in this discussion we're focusing on the audience-panelist dynamic, but the moderator's reponsibilities also require him or her to referee the panelists as well; we've all seen or been on a panel where one or more panelists meanders far afield or (consciously or unconsciously) attempts to monopolize the panel (or alternately, a shy but interesting panelist doesn't assert him or herself enough to make the points he or she wants to make), or the panelists nabber on and on and never get around to engaging the audience, which should be part of the discussion.

Ultimately the moderator is there to facilitate discussion not grandstanding on either the part of the panelists or the audience.

Claire Light:

"I did get to make very know-it-all comments at a panel upon which he sat. Consider that a caveat."

And it was a useful comment too, although there were others in that same session that really were not.

Re: organizing panels under a graduated rubric: I think that's a fine idea, actually -- just because the panel is the predominant format of discussion at conventions doesn't mean it is the only useful format, or the best format for every topic.

Anonymous | June 6, 2005 11:06 PM

Just letting you know that I'm responding to this at some length on my LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com/users/wild_irises). Please come by and join the conversation; I don't disable anonymous posting, so having an LJ is not required.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | June 6, 2005 11:45 PM

I observed that in my view, audience opinions are often interesting and valuable. This includes the views of people I don't know from Adam. In response to this, "Columbine" lectured me about what an "insider" I supposedly am, and went on to chide:

"To me, the panelists are celebrities, and the people seated facing them are the Teeming Masses"

It sounds to me like "Columbine" has a problem, and moreover, that it's very much not my problem.

Neil Belsky | June 7, 2005 09:53 AM

Good comments.
However, I have seen situations where the moderator has lot control of the panel, not to the audience, or one member there of, but to the panelists advancing their own agendas.
When that happens, perhaps a shit-disturber in the audience is a good thing.

Eliani Torres | June 7, 2005 07:20 PM

The net is a hall of mirrors. I think the reply responses in blogs are mushrooming. I was offline for a while, so I actually saw your post after reading Nick's:


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