I'm pleased to report that those two panels did exactly what was promised in a well-organized and helpful way. In fact, the most disappointing panel I attended was one of the so-called "safe" panels--essentially a how-to on a certain topic that I thought would unearth more useful tips.
I don't want to call anyone out, but know that if you are disappointed in a panel, it's probably not your fault. After all, it's your time and money at stake! Like any public talks, panels must keep the audience's attention and offer information and relatable conversation.
Panels are inherently inefficient forms of information conveyance because they stress the human factor. I do wish that AWP's talks varied in format, because there are some topics that would do better with one or two presenters rather than a full panel. But I doubt that's going to change.
Instead, let me offer some helpful notes to keep in mind when running, evaluating, or judging panels:
- Deliver what you promise and stay on track. An AWP panel is a five-person informational talk, meant to incorporate diverse opinions and experiences. While it is by no means a complete survey of knowledge, be careful to steer the conversation and avenues of inquiry away from any possible tangents.
- It's a panel, not a soapbox. While it could be that one or two people might be better presenters, teachers, or more experienced than the other panelists, no one likes the person who always has to have the last word, and who usurps the panel by answering every single question (if the other panelists aren't).
- Decide on a format beforehand. Some topics are more amenable to having questions that all panelists answer each time, such as the PhD panel I attended, or the panel on Asian-American writers sharing their experiences. Others don't work as well in that format, such as the Fulbright information panel, which cleverly combined some Powerpoint presentations with a Q&A to great effect. Since AWP panelists might not have a lot of preparation time together, it's important to set ground rules before the panel begins.
- Write a great but honest abstract/blurb. As writers, we all must practice communicating and expressing ourselves in different forms. Every panel should have useful information without over-promising. You'd rather nail a good agenda than flub a great one. Attendees don't want to feel cheated out of their time and money. While no one expects the world out of your panel, they do want more than just nebulous generalizations.
- Conceptualize your experience. You are a unique person, so your experience is unique to you. What people want out of panels is not only to know that others experienced similar paths, but also an idea of how to proceed in the future. We want advice!