Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Workshop Etiquette - a view from all sides

By: Catherine Dilts

The Pikes Peak Writers Conference was a frequent stop on my long road to publication. As a newbie to the writing world, I sat in the audience, soaking up lessons in craft and business. Since attaining the goal of publication, I have participated in conferences in the capacity of panelist and moderator.

Like you, I have attended workshops that were pure dynamite, igniting my creative juices or saving me from embarrassing myself with inept query letters. There have been panels with authors who were so entertaining, I wanted to run out and buy their books. I have been fortunate to have enjoyed inspiration, motivation, and education at writers’ conferences.

I have also been trapped in workshops that had me sneaking glimpses at my watch, wondering if it would ever end. Why do some panels flop, and others fly? Whether you’re at the front of the room presenting on a topic, facilitating the discussion, or sitting in the audience, you can play a role in making the conference experience successful.

First, some definitions.

Robert Lipardo, Kate Testerman, Mike Braff
panel brings together two or more experts to discuss a topic. For example, three editors talk about the slush pile, or five authors share their made-it moments.

workshop may be presented by one or more experts in a classroom environment. For example, a forensics scientist discusses DNA evidence, or an author gives advice on plotting.

Donald Maass
moderator may serve as a room monitor or an active player, depending on the conference. Moderators may be responsible to guide the panel discussion, ask questions, and manage the audience.

Having served in the role of moderator, panelist, and audience, I’ll share my wish list from each perspective illustrating proper workshop etiquette.

A Moderator’s Wish List

Author, this is not a Buy My Book opportunity. People paid to attend the conference. They know your name now, and will hunt down your book if interested, not because you constantly harangue a captive audience with a sales pitch.

Audience, either be here or be gone. No texting, running in and out of the room, and if your electronic device makes an annoying clackety racket while typing, sit as far from others as possible. Preferably outside the room, in the hotel lobby, where you are also welcome to eat, crunch ice, and smack gum.

Author, be prepared. I took the time to read your latest work and prepare intelligent questions. Please be ready to participate, and informed on the topic of discussion.

Audience, please, no bazinga comments that put panelists on the spot. No tedious questions about your work-in-progress and how to fix it, right now – save that for a hallway or dinner conversation.

Author, relax! This panel will not make or break your career. Let’s have a little fun.

A Panelist’s Wish List

Moderator, I would appreciate equal time. If another panelist hogs the spotlight, please find a way to politely shut them down and invite the rest of us into the conversation.

Audience, if all I hear are crickets, I will curl up and die. I am a writer, not a stand-up comedian. Forgive me if I’m not wildly entertaining. Give me a reaction. Laugh, clap, ask questions. Please be gentle if I flop.

Moderator, I would like to gracefully mention my body of work, and whether my books are available in the conference bookstore. If you introduce the topic of my current work, I promise not to go crazy with a lengthy sales pitch.

Audience, if you’ve read my story, please let me know during the Q&A. If you are also an author, or aspire to be, that’s okay to mention, but let me be selfish and enjoy the spotlight. As tough as the publishing business is, this could be my entire 15 minutes of fame.

Moderator, please take the time to know who I am and what I write. This is our panel, not yours. You may mention your work to establish your street creds, but you are here to facilitate, not dominate.

An Audience Member’s Wish List

Moderator, the conference has been exciting, yet draining. I’m a little brain dead at this point. Please remind me where I am and who is standing at the front of the room. Give me a chance to escape gracefully if I’m in the wrong room.

Author, present original and fresh material, not the blurb from the back of your book, or your canned biography. I can go to your website for that info. I want to learn something about you or your topic that I can’t find anywhere but at this conference.

Moderator, I really want a seat in the next workshop. Please keep the panel on track and on time, so I don’t look like a jerk if I leave the room in the middle of the conversation.

Authors, if this is a writers’ conference, I came to learn the craft and business for my own budding career. Forgive me if I don’t buy your books in the conference bookstore, but if I feel you really teach me something valuable, you’ll definitely go on my to-be-read list.

Moderator and Authors, just like you, I took a risk coming here. I ponied up my precious pennies, and maybe got on the bad side of my boss or family for selfishly taking this time for myself. Please make my conference experience worth the sacrifice.


Key to getting the most out of workshops is being prepared, polite, and engaged. Whether you’re a moderator, panelist, or audience member, you can contribute to a great conference experience.

About the Author:  To Catherine Dilts, rock shops are like geodes – both contain amazing treasures hidden inside plain-as-dirt exteriors. In book two of her Rock Shop Mystery series, amateur sleuth Morgan Iverson digs into gemstone prospecting to solve a Stone Cold Case. Catherine’s short stories appear regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Catherine works as an environmental tech, and plays at heirloom vegetable gardening and fishing. Visit her at


  1. Bravo! Having served at various times as audience member, panelist and moderator, I agree 100% with what you say here, Catherine. Wonderful advice.

    1. Thanks, Barb! A lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes to make a successful workshop or panel.

  2. I feel like a bobbing doll. This was so excellent, Cathy. Taking your words to heart.

    1. Thank you, Donnell. I had fun playing different roles to write this from all sides.

  3. I'm usually in the audience and having been the awkward feeling person everyone is staring at, I try my best to be a good person in a chair. I put my phone on mute and everything!

    1. Hi Elizabeth, the audience plays an equal role in a workshop or panel. I enjoy being in the audience, soaking up the information and entertainment.

  4. I've been on all three sides as well. Moderators have such a hard job especially controlling the panelist who thinks they're the star of the show. Then there's someone who technically is the star, but then the audience is fascinated by someone else on the panel and he starts getting all the audience's questions. As as a member of the audience it's a complete turnoff when someone on the panel tries to make the panel all about himself (herself). I think we need a sign... have you hugged your moderator today?

    1. Want to get noticed at a conference? Volunteer to moderate, and really work to make your presenters shine. People will remember your professionalism.

  5. Having gone to conferences in a variety of areas over 30 years (the arts, homelessness, sexual assault senior abuse..and now, writing), these tips and comments are priceless! I've moderated, been a panelist, even a room monitor and Cathy hit all the right stops. Great blog!

    1. Thank you, Michele. Any conference can become more rewarding when you get involved.

  6. *me standing up and clapping* This was just excellent, Catherine. This should be required reading for everyone participating (author/moderator/audience/whoever in the conference. Bravo!

    1. Thank you, Darby. I can't repeat often enough that conferences are a participation event. Whichever role you play, be involved and have fun!

    2. Thank you, Darby. I can't repeat often enough that conferences are a participation event. Whichever role you play, be involved and have fun!

  7. Such excellent advice. I was on a panel with you at last year's Sleuthfest, a wonderful experience all around. I'm re-posting this like crazy because I'm a conference director as well as a mystery author and teacher who's seen it all. Thank you for this excellent advice I can pass along. Thank you!

  8. I'm glad you found my article helpful, Christine. I remember the amazing pink fudge from your novel.

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