A Con-Goer Guide to Asking Questions

Over the years as a fan I read and saw a lot of interviews of creators and things of that nature. I’ve seen a handful of cons and their Q&A panels. This perspective piece is tempered by my training as a legal professional but probably more so by a desire to want to get that inner geek out, but in a way that doesn’t quite embarrass you (as much). At the very least, I hope this piece saves you some time thinking about…asking questions, (or if you never thought of it, you give it some thought) so you don’t make the same mistakes I did and the same mistakes I saw people make time and time again.

Celebrities

Background

For starters, let me just be specific and talk about the commonly-known fan cons that is best characterized by conventions such as Anime Expo in SoCal and Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland. Far majority of North American anime cons are of this type, although pretty much all of them are smaller, and naturally have concerns different than those large (20,000+) cons. That’s besides the point of this post, that said, aside from that size does matter, to some extent, to how intimate the setting is between you and the guest you want to see.

But what’s super special for North American anime cons (and other types of North American fan cons in general) is the ability to interact closely with the star guests. Granted, the amount of popularity determines how close you can get to them and celebrity-level guests will be more exclusive and troublesome to get to. I mention this mainly to differentiate more industry-based cons with anime programming (like the NYCC or SDCC), or anime cons with more of an industry-expo leaning (like a lot of the Japanese cons). Believe it or not in Japan they don’t get cons like Americans do, and the amount of access we have with the guests (like my fond memory with Maya Okamoto~) is just something some otaku can’t get enough of.

Which is to say, yeah, if you are in Japan you still can get into all this stuff, but it would be along industry or fan club resources. It’s notably more investment; obviously only really caring fans would go the length over time to do all that stuff as these clubs and events require lots of money (like cons) and dedicate (like some con goers). But all you get is whatever you get with that one person, like at a handshaking event…you shake so-and-so’s hand or some nonsense. On the other hand, a meet-the-guest round-table at a con gets you a taste of that and you can meet some interesting people (other guests or fellow fan) aside. On the net there is a lot of stuff dedicated to this, as well. What little insight into the creative crew behind our favorite shows we get out of Newtype USA or the occasional interviews from webzines and blogs is multi-folded through mostly official omake-type material, plus their versions of the same. Every anime has a website nowadays with a lot of content encrypted in Japanese; not so with the regional licensees’ websites.

What the hell am I talking about?

So let’s say you want to start an anime publication (let’s say, a website that has news, reviews, and editorials). You’re a huge Mamiko Noto fan (for example, since she’s coming to Otakon). You are already going to Otakon anyways and you want to attend her panel. What questions are you going to ask?

Here’s another way to look at it. You are one of those AoDVD goons-type person who sits in industry panels all day long (as they tend to get programmed one right after another at a lot of cons). Taking a break you hop one conference room over and sit in a larger room for a “guest of honor” (whatever that means). It just happens that the guest is a young Japanese voice actress who hasn’t really struck her fame yet, but she’s in this American con anyways. The panel room is definitely way larger than the crowd it gathered. You notice that you recognize the name from one of the show you took a liking to, but that is all you can recall. Oddly enough you thought of something to ask: this character has a “tender” scene with another character of the same sex, and you wanted to know how she feels acting in that context. Your first reaction was that it seemed kind of inappropriate to ask, but the audience was homely (ie. small) and they’re having a little trouble coming up with questions that interest you, let alone good questions in general. You are tempted to pitch the question just to get a little excitement going. How can you do it?

What I am talking about is satisfy a variety of desires:

  • You want to entertain the guest, and keep the panel lively and fun.
  • You want to get your inner geek questions out, and learn more about whatever that gets you going.
  • You want to not look like an ass.
  • You want people to laugh if you are going to look like one, taking one for the team.
  • You want to entertain yourself and walk out of the room with some happy memories.

So what?

One of my teachers used to say that preparation is half the battle, or some kind of nonsense like that. He’d be right. In fact, if everyone at a panel knows something about the guest in detail, you just transformed from a panel at a con to a panel at a fanclub. Automatically the discourse at the panel will be at a “higher” level and the inner geek can be easily satisfied.

Do your homework. If you want to run a fun and successful panel, you’d do that. If you want to ask good questions and make your interview interesting for the readers and guests alike, take some time ahead of time and think up some good questions. Do your homework and find out as much as you can. For example, instead of just reading random bio of some guy you want to interview, look up other interviews of this guy and hit up some fan caches (mailing list, forums, whatever) and solicit ideas from people who are already fans and knows the stuff. In other words, be a real geek and feed it.

If you are already a fan of the person’s works, it goes a long way getting your homework done. Even more so if you are fan enough to study how these creators and actors think and do their jobs, so you can understand their frameworks. I use the term framework loosely here, but think of it like a profile. Is the guest I’m interviewing some high-thought brainiac (Satoshi Kon) or a bigger geek than you (Shinichi Watanabe)? Is he like the Godfather (Tomino)? Is this guy just someone who’s really into his works, and don’t really “think” but “feel” (a lot of artist-types like chara designers)? Is this guy just doing it to get paid, but they like it anyways (producer types, some directors, a lot of voice actors)? Is this guy like you?

More often than not, though, it’s the opposite that is true. If you’re serious about asking questions at a con, you probably would be ingrained to think professionally. Doing homework becomes something you can do, or not, if you don’t want to. What I’m trying to get at is that all too often the average fans ask stupid questions because they aren’t doing it professionally; the thought of doing “homework” before a con does not even cross their minds, let alone the ability to ask one. Too often what comes up in mind at the spur of moment tend to be either generic “what is your favorite XYZ” or some kind of splooging that’s best done in private or on the internet. LOL @ “how do you find inspiration for your work” LOL.

On the other hand, there are some stuff you can do in a public panel rather than at, say, a press panel. Like propose to the panelist. That would be “taking one for the team” as mentioned earlier. It takes some skin and balls to pull it off, especially if you do it with style and thought it through before you do it. Of course, don’t do this out of the blue; it can backfire just as easily. In fact, because the more you think about it, the risk becomes all the more apparent. People who would do a good job making these kinds of jokes work tend to back out, as they plan and think it through. There are other things you can do, like asking about porn games at a Kotoko panel; or asking about Gabriella Robin at a Yoko Kanno panel (which are all questions you don’t need to know the answers to). You just have to do the homework. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Timing is important as much as grasping the framework of the panelist so you can pitch the gag correctly. Some guests rock precisely because they can transform a dorky or generic question and give interesting and entertaining answers (even “how do you find inspiration” types) as well as play tsukkomi to your boke when you offer your firstborn child.

Thankfully, most of us aren’t so full of chutzpah. So for the gracious and fair reader who has read thus far, here are a few concise pointers:

Package your questions well (I). Remember that unless you ask in the native tongue, the essence of your question has to not get lost in translation. Use simple and to-the-point phrases. Speak slowly and clearly. Spin it out if you need to. (Example: In Marimite, what kind of relationship, do you think, did Shimako have with Noriko? How did you reflect it in your acting?)

Help the panelist to answer your question. Ask your question in a way that gives them something to start answering with. It helps them to understand what you are asking in the first place, but also helps them to figure out what kind of an answer you are looking for. (Example: Who came up with the idea of Sekiman in Akahori Gedou Hour Rabuge? Was it an inside joke?)

Package your question well (II). Explain things using terms that people understand easily helps both the guest as well as the audience. It’s easy to forget but the panelist syncs with the audience, and the audience reacts to the questions asked as much as to the panelist. Both are important. (Example: Say both “Maria-sama ga Miteru” and “Marimite”.) Second, give a bit of background to a question you ask that may involve something obscure (How many of you saw Sekiman? LOL) partly for the audience, but also to jog the panelist’s memory (Seki has done too many roles to remember them all). As an aside, you score bonus points by doing your homework and throw relevant but obscure factoids about the guest in your question to wow the fans and give them something to talk about, and maybe throw the panelists off/impress them.

Dialog. It seems intimidating at some cons, but when it’s your turn to ask something, you’re sort of allowed to hog the audience mic for a bit–that is, if you can pull off getting what you want to say in without cutting anyone off (especially the guest). It helps to liven up a bit if you have something casual but meaningful to say (especially if funny). Definitely keep it terse and concise. (Example: Laugh, ask a very short follow up, say “thank you“).

Be precise. Unless there’s a reason to let the panelist know that you’re a huge fan for years in order to answer your question, there’s no reason to let the panelist know that you’re a huge fan for years. Sometimes this extra crap helps to give the conversation a trivial air if you told the guest you flew from half-way across the world, or something (they go “woooo”). But people generally hate it when their favorite guest can only take 5 questions at a panel because 3 of the questions are terribly long-winded and boring. Plus, the less you say, the less you’ll make a mistake or get caught off guard.

Be polite and professional. Turn off your cell phone or set it on silent. Be kind to your fellow fans; don’t hog the mic. DO NOT ASK OR TALK ABOUT FANSUBBING. If you can, trade questions with other people who are in line to ask one. If you’re good, ask follow-up questions to other good questions or under a good topic. If you come into a panel late, don’t ask questions you think other people would have asked already (basically if you have to preface it as being something someone may have asked, don’t even bother). Oh, right, don’t come into a panel late AND ASK QUESTIONS, especially if you’re ahead of other people who didn’t arrive late. (Or in the alternative, just ask someone who was there earlier.)

Package your questions well (III). Don’t make needless assumptions; avoid when you can. If you’ve done enough homework and feel confident, you can presuppose a framework in the question that helps the panelist answer your question. However what happens often is that an interviewer pose a question and the guest rejects the question, either by not giving a useful answer or goes on his own and explains how he approach the issue, and it takes up extra time. Almost always this is caused by the framework in the question being incompatible with how the guest looks at the issue posed. If the panelist is patient or “gets it” the panelist will spin something interesting off to try to get back to you, but this isn’t often the case. (Example: don’t ask “What is your favorite character that you played?” Ask “Of all the characters you played, which one is the most memorable? Can you tell us why?”)

Package your questions well (special). If you are going to speak in Japanese in a non-Japanese panel, uh, translate yourself. Way more often than not, this is a futile effort that only takes up more time as the translator has to translate it either to the guest again because your spoken Japanese sucks, or because the translator has to translate it for the audience’s sake. Since you gotta take a break to re-translate it no matter what, you might as well let the translator do his or her job. If you’re uncertain he or she can do it, assist them, don’t replace them.

And lastly (but this is not an exhaustive list), be prepared. Do your homework. Do your research. Ask other people. Come up with a list of questions way before the start of the panel. Listen to the audience and the panelist in the panel. Be sensitive to what’s going on. Pay attention to the translator and see how well he or she is doing. Offer to help if you can. Come on time.

And then you’re on your way, hopefully, to some fun and enjoyable memories.


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