How to Pitch a Panel

You may have noticed that I speak on panels every once in awhile.  In total I’ve done five at PAX, three of which I pitched myself and served as moderator.  I’m pretty good on panels – I can throw out a joke and chew on a topic with acceptable skill, and usually don’t enter a fugue state when I see the audience (usually), but by that time, my most valuable skill has already been used.  See what I’m really good at is pitching panels.

So with the Escapist Expo opening its doors to panel submissions, I thought this might be the perfect time to talk about how you go about it.

Pitching anything isn’t that hard as long as you put some thought into it.  Really you’re just trying to convince someone to give you a room and a couple of open microphones.  It’s similar to applying for a scholarship or grant, or even a job.  Everything will work out fine as long as you bring an interesting and unique topic and show that you have your act together.  Check your spelling and grammar.  Be professional.  Don’t use curse words or too much slang in your submission.  Use on email address that isn’t CocaineSatan@BabySealExecution.com

You’re not just selling a panel here, you’re selling the idea that the con staff can trust you with a PA system.

1. Do you Really Want to Pitch a Panel?

First you have to decide whether you want to pitch in the first place.  What are the parameters?  How long would you have to talk?  Are you comfortable speaking in front of several dozen, or even several hundred people?  Do you think you can get enough people to come out and do the panel with you?

2. No Seriously, DO YOU REALLY WANT TO PITCH A PANEL?

You’ll be sitting at the front of the room and everyone will be looking at you with their scary eyes.  They’ll expect you to say things without stammering incomprehensibly.  No hysterical gibbering or onstage breakdowns allowed.  If you’re moderating you have to manage your fellow panelists.  If you’re not comfortable with that, then seriously don’t pitch a panel.

3. Choose Your Topic

Figure out what makes you unique and pitch to that strength.  Maybe you’re a veteran D&D GM and can chew the fat about how to control wild players.  Alternately, you may have a day job that has an interesting angle on geek culture, think “Actual Lawyers vs. Rules Lawyers” or “Stim Pak Fallacy: Medical Professionals Talk Healing Systems.”  Life experience could come into play too – the year you spent abroad observing Korean game culture or how military FPSs relate to your own service in the armed forces.  Panels can literally be about anything, I saw one at Rooster Teeth Expo that was just members of the 501st showing off their costumes and taking questions about how to join the group and make armor.  Range far and wide for topics.  If you want to get ideas, look at what got accepted at the last PAX.

4. Choose Your Panelists

Panels live and die at this step.  If you and your friends are going to an event locally, this isn’t always a big deal, but if you’re traveling it can foul up the whole thing.  One of your panelists might not have the vacation time, or be able to afford the flight, or he might want to stay home with his pregnant wife to see the birth of his firstborn, the selfish bastard.  Point is, whatever your topic you need to lock down 3-4 people other than yourself that can commit to going to the event.  I try to invite four at the least, so if one drops out I still have a relatively full panel.  In all cases though, never ever list someone as a panelist until you’ve cleared it with them first.  They need to willingly consent to the appearance – don’t put them down just because the topic is in their wheelhouse and you don’t think they’ll mind, that’s a pretty big faux pas.

5. Recruit More Panelists If Necessary

Maybe you’re lucky and have 3-4 friends all willing to speak on a topic immediately.  That’s probably the case if you’re a game journalist and have a good network, but if you’re just an average joe who wants to do a panel, you may have to cast your net wider.  When I built my recurring panel “Borders, Bigotry, and Body Dumps: International Videogame Controversies” I only knew one person who I wanted as a panelist who was able to show.  The next panelist that I added I knew only from his articles, and the final one was through a recommendation.  That particular panel came together so nicely we reunited twice, but I only got those last panelists because I cold emailed a lot of people, some of whom said no.  If you have to do that, look for like-minded people that you think can handle their own in front of a crowd.  If they’re already coming to an event, that’s better than having to convince them to travel.  Just make sure you’re polite and clear in your dealings with them – remember, you’re soliciting their participation, not the other way around.  Don’t treat them like a job candidate, you’re courting them.  Be nice, be helpful, and respect their boundaries, especially if you’ve never met them in person.

6.  Herd the Cats

Two to three weeks before the submissions window closes, start making people give you a concrete “yes” or “no.”  If someone’s waffling, start researching replacements in case they drop out on you.  Get the vital information for each panelist, which usually includes their name, their work title (if necessary), where they work (if necessary) and their email address.  You’ll have to enter this on the panel submission.

7. Keep an Eye On the Deadline

(ZZZZZzzzznuzzle, snort.)  Gaaah! Wait, what? What do you mean the submission deadline was yesterday?  Damn it!  I should’ve put it in my calendar or something.  Also I should buy a calendar.

8. Choose a Title

I’m going to be honest here: I hate titles and I’m bad at them.  Titles are hard.  The first panel I pitched was called, as I mentioned, “Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps: International Videogame Controversies.”  The eye-grabbing language definitely roped in some audience members, but it was too long to print on the banner or in the schedule, where it just appeared as “International Videogame Controversies.”  Try for something punchy that gets the point across, or put the punchy name upfront and a subtitle after the colon.  If your panel is, “Demons in Your Pocket: How Japanese Folktales Became Pokémon,” it’ll probably show up in the program as the catchier first half.

9. Official Description

This will take you the longest because it’s what goes in the program and there’s usually a character or word limit.  Start by writing your panel description in a word processor – not the submission field – and just see where it takes you.  Write down the big idea of the panel first, whether it’s a statement or a question you plan to answer.  Next go onto the smaller topics you’ll cover, then list your panelists with their titles in parentheses   Now run a word count and cut down.  Then cut down again.  Then leave it for awhile, come back, read it, add what you need and cut it again.  Most submission forms give examples of successful panel pitches, so look at those and steal their structure if you want.

Here’s an example of one I did recently:

Borders and Bullets: Global Game Controversies

As videogames become an international hobby, games increasingly run into problems of representation and localization.  Military shooters often use international conflicts or real locations as their backdrop, igniting controversy in the countries they portray as well as raising questions about the portrayal of foreign people and the impact of violence in digital space.  This panel will explore the more worrisome aspects of this trend and discuss possible solutions the industry can use going forward.

 

What’s the favorite game of Hezbollah militants?  What are the ethical questions we need to consider when designing violent media? How’d Castro feel about getting shot in Black Ops?  This sequel to PAX East’s “Borders, Bigotry, and Body Dumps” will take on Oliver North, The Red Cross, and whether Spec Ops: The Line represents a new breed of ethically-centered shooter.

This is actually pretty long for a panel description.  If I had to do it again, I’d probably cut out the Castro line.  Note that this is a more academically-centered panel as well – don’t use so much jargon if you’re pitching, “Warhammer Conversions 101.”  Keep it light and bouncy.

10. Additional Information and Technical Information

The “Additional Information” field is where you make your case if you’re not sure of yourself.  For example, if you’re not a game developer or writer and feel like you need to justify why you belong up there, you can list achievements that would make you a good panelist (speech and debate club, for example, teaching experience) or drop links to your blog or podcast.  Get creative if you want – upload a video of you and your panelists to YouTube showing that you’re fun to listen to.  Another great use of this space is to list alternate panelists if one of your primaries wasn’t able to give you a solid answer by the submission deadline.

“Technical Information” on the other hand is what you need from the con.  Microphones, chairs and water are always provided, but if you’re going to use a PowerPoint you need to request a screen and projector.  Also, if you have any panelists with special requirements – wheelchair access to the stage, for instance, it’s best to enter that now.

11. Submit the Panel and Wait for a Response

If it gets accepted, congratulations!  If not, well, everyone tends to fail at this sort of thing before they succeed at it, so don’t get discouraged.  Resubmit next year.

That about sums it up for pitching.  If you have any questions, be sure to ask them below.

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