How To Get On Programming

[Editor’s Note: This advice about how to become a panelist on convention programs, written as a comment here yesterday, is so helpful and practical that I asked permission to repeat it as a front-page post.]

By Heather Rose Jones: I think a lot of people aren’t aware that most conventions have mechanisms for volunteering to be on programming. Doesn’t always mean you’ll be offered any, but especially if you aren’t a Big Name, you can wait a very long time to get a personal invitation out of the blue. (Though I am on the side of those who think being a Hugo finalist is a good reason to get a personal invitation out of the blue for Worldcon programming.)

This is, of course, one of the things that contributes to programming often being the same limited pool of people a lot of the time — they’re the people who know the various systems for getting on programming. So what are some of those systems?

  1. Check out the convention website and social media well in advance (and repeatedly) to look for announcements about programming questionnaires and the like. Put your name in and highlight one or two very specific topics or activities where you have expertise and can “put on a good show.”

  2. When you do so, think up entertaining and informative programming ideas and propose them. Conventions are always hungry for new and interesting programming ideas and sometimes they will explicitly prioritize giving programming slots to people who contribute to the process.

  3. Now we come to the “who you know” items. Be an interesting and articulate person in the company of people who are involved in coming up with programming ideas or proposing potential panelists. Engage in casual discussions about the topics of your interest and expertise. Tell people outright that you’d enjoy contributing to programming on a particular topic. One of those people you’re talking to may tell someone else, “Hey, you know who would be great on this panel? So-and-so!”

  4. I’m not going to lie. I got my start participating in convention programming at small conventions where the concom were personal friends of mine. I’m less fond of the notion of Worldcon programming being given out on the basis of “she’s a buddy of mine” but it’s a perfectly acceptable way to get a foot in the door at a local convention.

  5. Find ways of contributing to the convention experience that don’t have gatekeepers: interest groups, spontaneous activities. Be entertaining and informative and get along with people. They’ll remember you. And while I’m at it, never discount the advantages of volunteering at cons to get a chance to get to know people who might help open the door for you. (But be aware that people can tell when you’re trying to get to know them solely for this purpose.)

  6. Some of the avenues to program participation aren’t open to everyone. I believe that Westercon sends out a general programming invitation to SFWA members. There are some cons where I got a program participation invitation out of the blue that I think was based on SFWA membership. Dunno. But conventions who do that also have other ways to get on programming, so it’s not an exclusionary thing.

  7. If a programming topic excites you, follow-up on it with other people (panelists or not) who were similarly excited about it. Discuss your ideas. extend the panel discussion (without cornering a program participant who needs to be elsewhere!). Suggest moving it to the bar or socializing-venue-of-your-choice. Be part of the conversation even if you aren’t behind the table with a microphone.

Well, that moved away from “how do I get onto programming” a bit. But keep in mind that the officially scheduled programming is only one part of a convention. Be the programming you want to see in the world.

20 thoughts on “How To Get On Programming

  1. This is spot on, all of it.
    Start small and work your way up. Become known as a good/interesting panelist locally before trying to go Big Time. After an amount of panelist experience you might want to branch out into Moderating. Good Moderators are hard to find and are remembered/sought out by Programming Departments.

    Another route is to volunteer to work ON programming at your local con. Knowing how the sausage is made allows you to know how and when to add your particular spice. Programming DivHeads always need smart readers/writers to help mold and shape the raw clay of panel ideas into the sculpted blurbs you read in the Program Book. Volunteers are always needed to work At Con as well.

    In both cases of Paneling and Moderating it’s important to remember that being on a panel is a intellectual Performance for the Benefit of the Audience. Hogging the lime light, antagonizing your fellow panelists or the moderator, or just plain anti-social arrogance will get you dropped from future consideration.

    > “The officially scheduled programming is only one part of a convention.”
    Usually only about 10 to 20% of fans go to panels at the larger regional cons (based on the attending membership count from Registration vs. Programming’s own internal “butts-in-seats” counts). But to those of us in Programming it’s the heart and soul of a Con. It’s where ideas get formed, debated, accepted or declined. Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you wrote it, crashing and burning. And occasionally, if you’re lucky, it thunders off the launch pad to new heights. I’ve been in Programming for 30 years and it’s still where you can find me today.

    JeffW.
    Programming
    Arisia, Lunacon, Philcon, Pi-Con, Albacon, I-Con, Anticipation – the Montreal Worldcon, and quite probably DCin’21.

  2. Usually only about 10 to 20% of fans go to panels at the larger regional cons (based on the attending membership count from Registration vs. Programming’s own internal “butts-in-seats” counts).

    I think you mean that only 10-20% of fans are in panels at a particular moment; absent RFIDs in the registration badges, I would doubt reports that 80+% of attendees skip programming entirely. I would also note that at a large regional an activity taking up 10-20% of fans is a howling success; my observation at Arisia is that there is a smaller fraction in Dealers (excluding dealers themselves), Art Show, and Gaming (the three most obvious big areas) than in program. I suspect only the big events attract a larger fraction.

  3. Another pathway, mentioned independently on Twitter by long-time fan (and concom regular) Mary Kay Kare (who gave me permission to repeat it here, but not in time to be in the main posting):

    At the con, drop by programming ops and ask if they’re still looking for participants for any of the programming. (Panelists may have last minute emergencies and not show, or discover too late that they’d been double-booked, or a variety of other reasons for not being able to contribute.) I think this especially works if you’re already on at least one programming item but are interested in more.

  4. As someone who worked on programming for Helsinki, I will add one more thing: in the field where you enter interests and things you know well, nothing is too little or too obscure to enter. Worldcon programming is famously eclectic. For one panel I was in need of an experienced fanfic author or two (something only three or four poeple mentioned, among our one thousand volunteers). For another I needed people with knowledge about postcolonial history or political science. For a third I needed people with a Middle Eastern background (defined widely). For a fourth I needed people with experience in police work and criminal investigations (IIRC, that one ended up with one public prosecutor, one forensics technician, one emergency dispatcher, and one more person with relevant experience who wasn’t a police officer).

  5. Great advice, Heather! I followed your advice last year and got to be on my first panels, at Hawaiicon, where I had a great time!

  6. @Karl-Johan Norén
    For a fourth I needed people with experience in police work and criminal investigations (IIRC, that one ended up with one public prosecutor, one forensics technician, one emergency dispatcher, and one more person with relevant experience who wasn’t a police officer).
    That last person, “with relevant experience” — was he a criminal of some sort 🙂 ?

  7. Another opportunity/route to be part of programming worth knowing/remembering: childrens’ programming (sometimes AKA DragonsLair). For example, I’m (also) an amateur magician, and have been doing magic shows (and sometimes workshops) in the kids area for, well, a while now — mostly at Arisia and Boskone, which are local (for me), but also at some WorldCons (packing a small bag of tricks). It’s a good way to get a tentacle–sorry, foot–in the door.

  8. @Bill: If the person had been a criminal, I’d have remembered that. In this case, I’ve simply forgotten.

    @Daniel: And very much appreciated by my kids at Helsinki!

  9. This is precisely how I became a regular panelist at Baycon, with occasional invites to other conventions. I showed up, worked hard on becoming a good speaker and moderator, and made sure that I gave every panel my all.

  10. @Heather Rose Jones
    . . . someone from next year’s Worldcon in Dublin has posted . . .
    While I’d be proud to be from Ireland, and have a surname that has Irish roots, I’m not from Dublin. I’m from Alabama.

    @Daniel Dern
    ” . . . I’m (also) an amateur magician, and have been doing magic shows (and sometimes workshops) in the kids area for, well, a while now . . . ”
    You joined IBM Ring 122 in 1992, didn’t you?

  11. I ended up on two panels at Worldcon 75, one where I was the entirety of hte panel (the rapier demonstration out on the courtyard) and one where I was one of three (the cyberpunk one). And all that from just filling out a form (and responding relatively quickly to emails, I guess).

  12. Chip Hitchcock on July 24, 2018 at 8:51 am said:
    > I think you mean that only 10-20% of fans are in panels at a particular moment.

    Correct, sorry for the time frame confusion.
    It’s worth noting that we did “Butts-in-Seats” counts at Anticipation during both the Masquerade and the Hugo Ceremonies. All the panels that were run opposite those Big Events were well attended. So if you are not going to attend the Big Events anyway, tell Programming that you are willing to be on any applicable counter-programming. (most Programming software suites have a “Don’t schedule me against [blank]” checklist or fill in.) The more available you are, the more likely you might be used.

  13. Bill on July 24, 2018 at 10:16 pm asked me:

    You joined IBM Ring 122 in 1992, didn’t you?

    Yeah. “Silent Moira” IIRC. I’ve been episodic or desultory or whatever about national and local memberships, since I’m performing very infrequently (and so far, not for filthy lucre (1)… OTOH, when I do readings of my stories (kids or otherwise), it’s fun to “be my own warm-up act” by doing a few tricks.

    Apropos of the scroll topic proper, there’s the occasional serendipity or spontaneous-generation-of-opportunity factor… when we got to Sasquan (Spokane WorldCon, 2015), I discovered that I was also doing a “how to do magic” session in kids programming. News to me. No problem, I’ve done enough basic tutorials etc. (Including some at Arisia and/or Boskone joined by James MacDonald (who did a kids magic show at this year’s Boskone this year). (He’s far more skilled than I am, along with better garbed, and does a great job with many classic tricks… but I’ve got him beat in goofy props.)

    (however) Despite it being listed in “kids programming” I got no kids, but I did get ~15-20 adults (16 through AARP-qualifiying). It went well, and I’ve pitched and done this at least once since then, in a main Con programming. You never know what one thing can lead to.

    (1) As opposed to Filthy Pierre, of course.

  14. @ Bill

    Sorry, I had jumped to the conclusion that the comment had been posted by someone officially associated with the Dublin Worldcon. Whoever posted it, under whatever authority, thank you for pointing it out.

  15. Bill on July 24, 2018 at 10:16 pm said:

    While I’d be proud to be from Ireland, and have a surname that has Irish roots, I’m not from Dublin. I’m from Alabama.

    Ah, but you don’t HAVE to be from Dublin, or even Ireland, to be on Staff for Dublin in 2019. Volunteer early and often. 😉

  16. @ Bill Higgins:

    If we end up near each other, with suitably throwable things, I’mm happy to try to teach you. Just be warned, it’s easier to start juggling than it is to stop…

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