On Con Panels, Part 1: Narratives

I’m not an expert panelist by any means, nor have I ran panels at a large anime con. But I’ve given at least one presentation in front of a big crowd (almost in  TED style come to think of it, but this was some time ago) and it seems there is a need to rehash some of this stuff in the context of an anime convention setting. I’m more comfortable saying these things from the perspective of an attendee than a presenter, but you can probably flip these things around and consider how to run a hit panel at an anime con.

First of all, a lot of what is important to lawyers, corporate sales and people who give narrative-driven presentations generally will apply to a good anime con panel. If you do this stuff for a living, you might be pretty pro already in which you can stop reading this post. All you need is to adjust the pitch to the anime con audience, know what they want from your panel and serve it up the way you think they should eat it. To that end I am not going to rehash things like, well, having a narrative. Or maybe I will?

A lot of people who go to cons are there to have a good time. They aren’t necessarily interested in learning something, but often learning something new is interesting, so they do it. I think that should be how you pitch a panel that has an educational component to it. Personally one of the worst things (that keeps on happening to me) is to attend a panel on a topic that I am very interested in, only to find that I already know everything the panel has to offer. Of course, this is much likely going to be the case since I’m the type of person who reads up on the things that I am very interested in, and most anime con panels aim for a general audience level of know-how on any particular subject matter, which is someone who doesn’t read up on the said things.

This is where having a narrative helps your panel. A narrative is like the undercurrent of your panel, the road in which there is some kind of planned, logical progression in the material that you present. A well-crafted narrative foreshadows what conclusions you make, prompts the audience to ask questions that you want them to ask, and helps them to anticipates what comes next. A good narrative modulates the flow of the panel, it builds up excitement to go with the big splashes you make in your presentation. In other words, even if your panel is an infodump, you can make it interesting for the geek smartasses who already know everything by telling them a story that is disguising the infodump.

Because anime cons (especially large ones) are geek cons, you should expect smartasses at your panels. At a trade show or an academic conference, odds are the presenters are the people working at the bleeding edge of the subject matter, and probably knows everyone else who are also at the same bleeding edge, so nobody is more of a smartass than the presenter. This is very rarely the case at an anime con.

Anyway, more importantly, a good narrative is convincing. What is worse than knowing everything about what the panelists are saying is not convinced by anything the panelists are saying. That is probably the nice way to put it, but it’s more like you know the guys on stage are just bullshitting, or worse, circle-jerking to something that’s wrong. This used to happen much more often because anime in America was relatively insular. Nowadays most people who knew anything uses the internet to check themselves, so crack theories tend to not attract traction and get panel time. These kind of issues are more distracting than even just making plain factual mistakes (although it is not as bad of one, as we will see) because it totally kills

Most importantly, a good narrative is interesting for everybody. It’s like enjoying a good storyteller’s tale about nothing interesting. So I am making a case for it. Unless you are Mandoric. Or, of course, unless you aim for something else other than a passively engaged audience.

…and there are many ways to engage your audience besides by telling them a story.

I think ultimately, con panels need to engage the audience. Having a narrative is just one of several, and finding one that suits your panel should be something you need to be thinking about fairly early on.

The roundtable panelist sort of thing generally fails at this, unless you have magnetic personalities or hot topics to keep the audience occupied. Generally they don’t work for the topics I’m interested in.

When I think about the topics that interests me, the narrative concept helps me do a few things:

Often times a topic can be very broad, even in this sub-cultural niche. By focusing a narrative you, well, focusyour panel, and it helps you stuff only what’s important in the short amount of time allowed.

A lot of the time I fall into a trap in that I think of a panel as a way to exchange information. This is true to an extent but that should only be the “headtrick.” It’s like edutainment, you want to teach, but your audience shouldn’t be thinking that they are learning consciously. You might want to discuss something with your panelists and/or with the audience, but it should only be because everyone says something that builds or plays off each other. Now of course we are adults, we don’t have to sugarcoat this stuff, but at the same time don’t make it dry either–brandy-coat it ;)

The panel builds itself via the narrative framework.  I go on and on about the N word, but how do you build a narrative anyways? That is a tough question, and it’s art for those who do it for a living. To use debating as an example, think of it as building an argument. For example, if I want to talk about moe at an anime con, it’s a wide topic with few solid footing throughout. More importantly, it’s something people debate to no end. In some ways if I think about a story I want to tell that gets my point across, I can focus my presentation towards an end, a goal, a conclusion–the points I want to tell. Because stories have beginnings and endings, usually, you have a vague roadmap to what you want to cover to hit your points. You can even make an open ending and just nudge your audience via your presentation. On the other hand, don’t just talk around the argument by presenting all the facts and what not, because nobody cares about the fact you are presenting, because they don’t know why you are doing it without you showing what is contentious.

This is where you can make some outrageous statement, as I mentioned earlier. As long as your narrative supports the weight of your ludicrous fanboying, your audience might still stick around even if you are crazy or creepy as all hell (For a hypothetical example: Shinbo is a lolicon because I’ve built a case for it in the past 45 minutes). Basically, buid a narrative to explain how you get to that point; make them understand, or better yet, sympathize with you. If your facts are right and your logical deductions are sound (bonus points for being creative) I think you might even entertain the most geekiest of geeks.

To conclude for now–go watch some TED clips. Learn something worthwhile. And see how the different presenters do their show. It’s not the only way to do panels, but it is probably a popular way to go about it if you aim to educate and to amuse.

[Part 2 may not be coming. We will see.]

PS. What I described right there is every single “The Manga Guide to” book. Minus the manga part. That is the headtrick.


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