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Get Involved with Programming, Part Four: Panels!

Next up: panels. We've covered general proposal preparation, papers and talks and presentations, and we've brainstormed a little; you can click this link to see just the posts tagged "programming" in this community.

But on to panels!

Panels usually consist of 3-5 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 particularly well-suited for finding out about a group's experiences or for discussing a topic among several people with very diverse viewpoints. For example, you might have three people who are really interested in the use of dragons in fantasy; alternatively, you might have five people who are all at different points in their publishing careers. Perhaps you want to address a big question, like the future of fantasy, and host a debate about the genre’s path. If you’re thinking that you’d really like to see these items 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 roundtable is meant to be a small and highly interactive discussion among about 25 people, with one person keeping order and keeping the conversation moving. On the other hand, a panel is meant to be a small and highly interactive discussion among 3-5 panelists, 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.

Getting Started
First, you'll need to choose a topic and focus for your panel, and you'll need to gather panelists. For panels, it's often a good idea to narrow down your focus with input 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 sides of an issue--a panel is more interesting when there are different viewpoints! 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
First, we'll ask you for some contact information (which is not shared with the vetting board). All correspondence about your proposal will be sent via e-mail, so make sure to use a contact address that you'll have through the end of 2010 and that you check regularly. Avoid LiveJournal addresses--they bounce, and we'll have no way to reach you. You should also add (programming at to your safe sender list so that correspondence is delivered to your inbox.

Next, we'll ask for 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 do 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 and programming volunteers, as well as the one connected to your presentation.

We'll allow you to specify professional affiliation. This is for those presenters who wish to note their association with a university, and occasionally, a business or professional organization if their presentation is related in some way. Some people use this field, and others don't.

Then, we'll need the e-mail addresses of the panelists. You won't give us the names or biographies of your panelists--instead, we'll send them a private request for information. Your panelists will need to respond to the information request e-mail for your panel to be considered, so please let your panelists know that this e-mail is on the way and ask them to reply promptly. As with the rest of your information, panelist e-mails must be provided before your proposal is reviewed; you can't submit a panel and find panelists after (or only if) the panel is approved. (Also, a panelist, rather than a moderator, can be the one to submit the proposal, but it's easiest all around if the moderator takes care of this task and becomes the point of contact.)

Finally, we'll need your biography. Tell us, in under 100 words, a little about you. A couple of sentences is fine! You can explain any experience or studies--or even 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
There are three items that you'll need for a complete panel proposal.

First, you'll need a title. Remember that this 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 an obscure or witty title--just one that explains what the panel is about.

Next, you'll need 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 impress and 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's one example that we've borrowed from "Buffy, Bella and Boys: Staking Your Life on Power and Identity" which was presented in 2009:
Joss Whedon specifically created Buffy, of vampire slayer fame, to subvert the archetype of the fun blonde girl who always dies in horror movies; what if, he asks, the monster followed the girl into an alley and she kicked its ass? Stephenie Meyer, in contrast, dreamed not her heroine but her hero, impossibly dazzling in a meadow. One character is a superhero, a warrior-girl; the other, a paint-by-numbers protagonist who takes nearly four books to find her power and in doing so, loses her humanity. Both fall for the bad guy: one for her enemy, the other for a superpredator. In a world of vampires, victims and vengeance, what do Buffy and Bella say about power and identity?

Finally, you'll need an abstract of no more than 500 words. An abstract is a complete--but short--version of your presentation. For a panel discussion, it should outline the topic you plan to address and points for discussion.

Here are a couple of resources you might use to put together a brief but cohesive abstract section for your proposal:
an article on abstracts prepared for Terminus, a past event from Narrate Conferences
How to Write an Abstract by Philip Koopman at Carnegie Mellon University (a formal article for those writing academic papers, but a good place to start)

And some tips for newbies:
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. Most abstracts range from 100 to 300 words, though they can be up to 500 words, and are 1-3 paragraphs long.

The abstract is the short version of your eventual paper, 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!

Separately, there are some things that do not belong in your abstract. The vetting board does not care to consider whether or not you'll present in a costume, for example, or how you're going to make it funny by telling jokes; they're looking at your point of view.

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." Include a completed abstract, not your first draft. "See my other proposal for X" 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 that they are unwilling to search through the proposals to do this comparison for you. Also, abstracts should be carefully reasoned, even when persuasive in content; presentations are not soapboxes for "getting people to see it my way."

Finally, be sure to 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 won't see your entire paper, and won't know if you're the most engaging speaker to present in a hundred years. They'll decide whether to accept or decline your presentation based on your abstract!

Timing and Audio-Visual Requests
If you choose to propose a panel and it is accepted, you'll be scheduled in a 50-minute time block, and should expect to spend most of that time presenting your panel discussion. (It's okay to build in some time for questions.)

Because panels are scheduled in larger spaces, microphones will be provided; usually, one microphone is available for the moderator with shared microphones for panelists. You can make a request for an easel, LCD projector, or DVD player, 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. Generally, panels focus on discussion, so extra equipment is usually not available.

FAQ about Proposals for Panels
Do you accept all panels?
No; we forward all proposals to the vetting board, which selects which panels 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.

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 panel. Instead, please write to (programming at

How many proposals can I make?
As many as you like. If you find that you've had a high acceptance rate and that you're overcommitted, we do request that you consider whether or not you can make that many presentations before we complete the final schedule.

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 6, 2011. 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.

What is the proposal deadline?
May 7, 2011.

What if I make a proposal and it’s accepted, but I can’t come?
If you find out that you won’t be able to attend before May 7, 2011, you can ask around to see if someone can take your place. Perhaps a panelist can act as moderator for your panel, or perhaps another attendee you know would be willing to fill in at the conference. We appreciate it when you make an effort to ensure that your panel can remain on the schedule. If there are not at least three people able to attend and present your panel, please 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. You may not change 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 7, 2011, please withdraw your existing presentation and create a new one.

Can I request a specific day and time for my presentation?
Unfortunately, no. While we will take certain immovable factors into account, such as jury duty or presenting at another conference during the same weekend, we have so many presenters 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 availability of audio-visual equipment. In the meantime, you can expect your presentation to be scheduled for October 7 or 8.

Do you "track" presentations?
We make an attempt to schedule presentations into morning and afternoon tracks by theme and by type of presentation. 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.

How can I connect with other presenters or collaborators?
Please feel free to post responses here, 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 e-mail general queries to (help at and questions about programming to (programming at
Tags: programming

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