There are many who have an interest in running a panel at cons but lack the expertise. I decided to locate arguably the best panelist in the nation and request an interview to gain insight. Charles Dunbar has been a prolific panelist at anime cons over several years. You can learn more about him at Study of Anime. My hope is for this interview to prove helpful to aspiring panelists as well as current ones.
The Paper: To reiterate, my aim for this interview is to gain a better understanding on creating, pitching and running a panel. To begin, how do you choose a topic?
Charles Dunbar: Picking a topic is the hardest part. How much material can you find? I believe in the saying that “you should present on what you know or something you don’t know but feel very passionately about”. Actually, inspiration hits when you’re not thinking about it. It happens to me when I am playing video games.
TP: Tell us about the research process.
CD: It’s just like a college paper. Goto the library. When I worked on my Death panel, I looked up everything “death + Japan”. This part is the most fun because I can learn about so many new things.
TP: Now that research is done, how do you prepare the presentation?
CD: When I first started, it was just massive walls of text. You tweak it over time. The second time around, you add new tricks, new jokes. While you want the slides to hit upon all the talking points, you don’t want to read the slide unless it’s a quote. Have something else to say that elaborates on the slide. Engage the audience.
TP: So how do you pitch the panel? Or do you pitch first? What’s the order?
CD: Pitch first. Pitch even before research. Have an abstract. That said, still do the research first. A well researched pitch will make an impression. Ichibancon has someone on staff who always ran this one panel. But when he reviewed my pitch, he saw that my presentation is potentially better and stepped aside. It’s gotten to the point where cons understand the work I put into research and they will actually proffer me ideas for panels.
TP: Ok, let’s talk about the presentation.
CD: Give the presentation in its entirety the first time just to test it. Rehearse it beforehand. I was in my hotel room rehearsing from midnight to 2am. Add humor. In fact, make a reference to the joke on the slide in parenthesis. It helps you and the audience finds it amusing. I am intimidated by a huge room like the Miyazaki panel but you could return to familiar ground. The seven episodes of Dragonball Z skit [at said panel] was something impromptu I did at another con. The crowd feedback was instantly positive so I kept it.
TP: Great. Tell us about panels with multiple speakers.
CD: It’s hard to match panelists. We need to feed off each other. The key is to find a good place to jump into panel discussions. I used to be terrible at this. Everyone needs to be on the same page. Plan and prepare logistics beforehand. Review each other’s slides.
TP: What’s the most memorable experience? Worst?
CD: Worst is not getting any response from the audience. Hmmm. Best would have to be the time I was doing the Miyazaki panel on the second level at the hotel and the audience was really into it and cheering so loudly that it brought people up from downstairs curious about the commotion.
TP: Are there any improvements you like to see?
CD: This one time I had a panel scheduled at midnight. Why would anyone do that? It wasn’t an 18+ panel.
TP: I saw a tweet from Mike Toole a while back and was surprised at the lack of accommodations for panelists. Can you give some comments?
CD: Well, some cons treat panelists like just another attendee that happens to speak. Anime Boston and Otakon treat us very well. Panel Ops at Otakon has ice cream, cake… panels provide programming.
TP: Thank you for the interview.
CD: Thank you.
[We continued chatting after the interview and he had more to say.]
CD: There are some people who want to run a panel just so they can get into the con for free. They’re not serious about presenting and just want to hang out with their friends during the panel.
TP: A bad apple ruins it for everyone.
The Cat Returns is my favorite movie of all time so afterwards I took a playful jab at him about how he is wrong that that movie is not the best Ghibli film. He said it was grossly underrated.