Our Annual Programming Series, Part Four: Panels

Part one of our programming series covered general proposal preparation, part two described presentation styles, and part three explained papers, talks, and presentations.

On to panels!

Panels usually consist of 3–4 panelists and a moderator. The moderator and panelists discuss a topic of interest, with most of the discussion coming from the panel (though the moderator may take some questions from the audience).

Panels are scheduled in a 50-minute time block, and you should expect to spend most of that time presenting your panel’s discussion. (It’s okay to build in some time for questions, but have enough discussion prepared in case there aren’t many—and consider that structuring the panel’s discussion around some thoughtful questions means you’ll get to the good stuff.)

Panels are particularly well-suited for finding out about a group’s experiences or for discussing a topic among several people with very diverse viewpoints.

If, for example, you have:

  • two people who have different perspectives on a particular theme
  • three people who are really interested in the use of dragons in fantasy
  • four people who are all at different points in their publishing careers
  • or a big question, like the future of fantasy, and you’d like to host a debate about the genre’s path

…you might want to organize a panel.

If you’re thinking that you’d really like to see an item on the schedule, but you have more questions than answers, you could organize the panel as the moderator!

If you’re trying to figure out whether a topic is best suited to a roundtable or a panel:

  • Consider the degree of interactivity and the scale of participation. A panel is meant to be a small and highly interactive discussion among 3–4 panelists, with one person keeping order and keeping the conversation moving. A roundtable is meant to be a small and highly interactive discussion among no more than 25 people, with one person keeping order and keeping the conversation moving. For a roundtable, the interest is in the discussion the audience brings to the presentation, and for the panel, the interest is in the viewpoints of the panelists.
  • From a moderator’s standpoint, panels take a little more prep time than roundtables, because you’ll need to ask people to be part of your panel, and because you’ll want to (and probably need to!) have a conversation in advance about the shape of the panel, the emphases, potential questions, how to manage your time, and so on.
  • Roundtable discussions don’t involve others at the proposal stage, but can be more challenging to moderate, because you won’t have any idea who will attend or how the attendees will shape the discussion.

Getting Started
First, you’ll need to choose a topic and focus for your panel, and you’ll need to gather panelists. You can approach people you know or people that you don’t, but we highly recommend that you contact potential panelists before you submit their email addresses as panelists. That way, no one is surprised!

For panels, it’s often a good idea to narrow down your focus with input from your panelists—you never know what experiences they might have to share that can help shape the panel. Also, if you’ve disagreed amicably with someone on a topic, consider forming a panel that explores different aspects of an issue or theme.

The panelists can also take a role in preparing the summary and abstract for your proposal, not to mention leading the discussion and asking questions of other panelists at the conference, and they should be prepared to answer questions from the moderator, other panelists, and even the audience.

Once you’ve focused your idea, you’ll need some information ready to make your proposal.

Personal Information to Gather
1. Your contact information (which is not shared with the vetting board). All correspondence about your proposal will be sent via email, so make sure to use an address that you’ll have through the end of 2015 and that you check regularly. Please add (programming at to your safe sender list so that correspondence is delivered to your inbox.

2. Name to be published for presenter on website, schedule, and program. While we ask for some personal information to allow our registrar to confirm your status as a registered attendee, we know you might want to use a different name for your presentation, whether that’s a pseudonym, an online handle, or a formal name that you use professionally. (Please note that we drop titles on our schedule and with presentation summaries, but you’re welcome to note titles and professional credentials in your biography.) The “name to be published” will be the name we show to the vetting board, programming volunteers, and other attendees.

3. Professional affiliation. This is for those presenters who wish to note their current association with a university, and occasionally, a business or professional organization if their presentation is related in some way and they’re speaking with the endorsement of their job. Some people use this field; most don’t unless they’re currently teaching at a university.

4. Email addresses of the panelists. You won’t give us the names or biographies of your other panelists; we’ll send them an email request for that information. They will need to respond to the information request email for your panel to be considered, so please let your co-presenters know that this email is on the way and ask them to reply promptly. As with the rest of your information, presenters’ emails must be provided before your proposal is reviewed; you can’t submit a panel and find other presenters only after (or if) the panel is approved. (Also, a panelist who is not the moderator can be the one to submit the proposal, but it’s probably easiest all around if the moderator takes care of this task and becomes the point of contact.)

5. Your biography. Tell us, in under 100 words, a little about you. A couple of sentences work fine! You can explain any experience, studies, or long-term interest in your topic; tell us where you’re going to school; or what you do as a job or as a hobby. Shorter is better, because space is limited.

Proposal Information to Gather
1. Title. Remember that this title will be shown to the vetting board, so neither “Untitled” nor “TBA” is a good title idea! On the other hand, you don’t have to come up with something witty—just explain what the panel is about.

2. A summary of no more than 100 words. This is the very short version of your presentation that will be published in the program book and on the Sirens website. This is where you have the chance to attract an audience who will be interested in attending your panel. It should be concise, written for a general audience (in other words, avoid slang and jargon, if you can), and give people a sense of your perspective(s) on the topic.

Here are a couple of examples from past panels that we think are excellent:

Much fiction, and much of our society, is viewed from “the male gaze.” This is a perspective in which expectations of what matters and what is worth being written about, as well as the way in which characters and events are seen and described, is from what might be called a “male view” of the world. What, then, is the female gaze? How do stories change when seen from the point of view of female desire and female agency? How do we read those stories differently? And does the critical establishment view such stories differently than those written with the more “normative” male gaze?

Food in fantasy is often unthinkingly patterned on our own world and on clichés—aren’t we all tired of journeyers mindlessly eating stew? Consider that fantasy is thinner and weaker without thoroughly considering the foodways of the world. Unpacking food questions gives rise to musing on land types and land usage, food storage and preparation, nutritional needs, and also larger social constructs.

Manga and anime feature a wide variety of monsters, from the morally ambiguous homunculi of Fullmetal Alchemist to the bizarre demon-weapons of Soul Eater to the charming creatures of Fruits Basket. Sometimes the monster is female, and sometimes the monster-slayer is—and, as in Claymore, sometimes the line between them blurs. This panel will discuss the monstrous female and the “monster girl” in anime and manga.

From The Descent of Inanna to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, journeys to the underworld/afterlife have been a staple of fantastic literature. This panel will discuss both the ancient tradition of underworld journeys and how this tradition is used in modern fantasy. Why does this theme have such an enduring appeal? How do modern novels use and transform it?

3. An abstract of no more than 500 words. An abstract is a complete—but very short!—version of your presentation. For a panel, it should outline the topic you plan to address and points for discussion, explain your panelists’ perspectives, and provide a couple of sample questions. Here are a couple of resources you might use to put together a brief but cohesive abstract section for your proposal, if you’d like it to be more formal:

More tips:
Most abstracts range from 100 to 300 words, though they can be up to 500 words, and are 1–3 paragraphs long. Aim for about 300–350 words, and at least a good, solid paragraph, unless you need more space to explain a theory or cite sources.

Your abstract should not be the same as your proposal summary. An abstract is the part of your proposal where you get a little more room to convince the vetting board that your presentation should be chosen. It is the short version of your eventual panel, and should be able to stand alone. A good abstract will include your thesis or approach, supporting details or arguments, and most importantly, your results, recommendations, or conclusion. The vetting board wants you to spoil the ending! (In a summary, you probably want to write something more like book jacket copy, but for the abstract, summarize the plot.)

“See my other proposal for X [biography, summary, alternate abstract]” usually results in a declined presentation, because the board members may not have access to your other proposal for a variety of reasons: it could be on hold while collaborators check in, the board members may not yet be reviewing your other proposal, or they may simply decide they are unwilling to search through the proposals to do this comparison for you. Take a moment to copy and paste in your information again.

Make sure that your proposal is complete. The vetting board wants to know that you have a clear plan. No “maybe we’ll do this, or maybe someone in the audience will suggest something, or if you want, I could do this or that.” There’s a difference between allowing room for audience participation and not having a plan!

Have a volunteer who is willing to provide you with honest feedback look over your proposal, both to proofread it and to offer suggestions for organization, focus, and purpose. Remember, the vetting board will decide whether to accept or decline your presentation based on your summary and abstract.

Three to four panelists, including the moderator, is a good size for a 50-minute panel. Everyone has ample time to speak, there will be minimal microphone sharing, and you have enough people for multiple perspectives. The submissions system will allow a moderator to name up to four additional panelists; beyond that, you must email us to add participants.

Audio-Visual Requests

  • Panels are routinely provided with microphones when the space is larger than a small classroom. We request that presenters use the microphones to assist the audience in hearing the entire presentation. Usually, one microphone is available for the moderator, with one or more shared microphones for panelists.
  • You can make a request for an LCD projector (with computer), but please remember that we prioritize use of equipment for visually-oriented presentations, and consider what you might do if extra audio-visual support isn’t available. We’re typically able to provide this support—we just can’t guarantee it at the time we notify presenters of acceptance. Generally, panels focus on discussion, however, so extra equipment is less likely to be available. Presentation rooms have an easel and a small dry erase board as standard equipment.
  • Some presenters will bring several copies of a handout to pass around and then collect email addresses of those who would like a copy after the conference, which saves room in everybody’s suitcase and is environmentally friendly. We approve!

FAQ about Proposals for Panels
What are the requirements for presenting? Do I have to be a teacher or scholar?
Our only requirement is that you be eligible to attend Sirens, which means that you must be at least 18 years old by October 8, 2015. We have no academic or professional requirements, and in the past we’ve received excellent presentations from high school students, grandmothers, professors, musicians, fans, and teachers, among others. Remember—your voice is important.

What is the proposal deadline?
May 15, 2015.

Do you accept all panels?
No; we forward all proposals to the vetting board, which selects the panels that will be accepted for Sirens.

If my panel is declined, can you tell me why?
Unfortunately, we can’t. We simply have too many proposals, and we don’t ask the vetting board members to write up formal feedback. We can say, however, that proposals are never declined because they include unpopular opinions or controversial takes, or on the basis of personal relationships; the board is designed so that no single person accepts or declines a submission. In the past, we’ve found ourselves in the lucky position of having more excellent ideas than we could include, and that will likely be true in the future as well.

Should I contact the vetting board about my panel?
Please do not contact the vetting board members about your proposal. They make their decisions confidentially, and can’t answer questions about the status of your presentation. Instead, please write to (programming at We’re happy to help!

How many proposals can I make?
As many as you like. However, we want to emphasize that one or two presentations is a good maximum number that enables you to be part of the presenting side and part of the listening side, so we recommend that you focus on just one or two proposals that you’re most excited about.

What if I make a proposal and it’s accepted, but I can’t come? What if one of the panelists can’t come?
If you find out that you won’t be able to attend before May 15, 2015, perhaps another panelist can act as moderator for your panel, or perhaps another attendee you know would be willing to fill in at the conference and will take your place. You may find that a post on the Sirens Facebook or message boards works to find a replacement as well. We appreciate it when you make an effort to ensure that your panel can remain on the schedule. If there are not at least two people able to attend and present your panel, please have the panel moderator write to (programming at and we’ll talk about options.

Can I change the title of my panel later? Can I change the format or focus of my presentation?
If you provide us with the information before the panel is passed on to the vetting board, then yes, you may make changes to the title or summary, as long as the focus of your panel is not substantially changed. We will ask you for a final confirmation upon acceptance, and you will have a short time to make updates before the information is published and final.

You may not make major changes to your presentation’s direction or format once it has been accepted; the proposal that you entered is the one that the board approved. If you wish to make substantial changes to your presentation, and it is earlier than May 15, 2015, please write us to withdraw your existing presentation and then create a new one through the submissions system.

Can I request a specific day and time for my presentation?
Unfortunately, no. While we will take certain immovable factors into account, like presenting at another conference during the same weekend, we have so many presenters and constraints that we’re unable to take scheduling requests (everyone wants to present at the same time, but without being at the same time as any other presentation). The schedule depends on our ability to create thematic tracks of presentations, our need to accommodate presenters with multiple presentations, any restrictions on space and available hours, and availability of audio-visual equipment. You should expect your presentation to occur on October 9 or 10, 2015.

Do you “track” presentations?
We make an attempt to schedule presentations into morning and afternoon tracks by theme and by type of presentation, and sometimes by format and audio-visual needs. The advantage here is that an attendee could spend half a day absorbed in a topic or theme without needing to move from room to room. That’s not always possible, of course, because of the different styles of presentation, but we do try not to schedule two presentations on closely related topics at the same time, whenever possible.

How can I connect with other presenters or collaborators?
Please feel free to tag @sirens_con on Twitter, to post on Facebook, and to check out our message boards to suggest ideas that you’d like to see someone propose, to search for collaborators, and to brainstorm topics.

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at and questions about programming to (programming at

Quick links:
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information
Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook or the Sirens message boards?

Join Us for a Chat!
We’re hosting a chat on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas. Join us on Sunday, April 19, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during that time; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

We’ll also be holding a chat on Twitter: Sirens will hold a Twitter brainstorming session for programming topics. It will be held on on April 8 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Our Twitter account is @sirens_con and our hashtag is #Sirens15.

Also, #SirensBrainstormMonday on Twitter has topics free for the taking (and if you have too many ideas, please feel free to contribute your extras).

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